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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Critiques, Contacts and Competitions – What a week!

So much has gone on this week there’s a danger it won’t fit on the page.

It all started last Tuesday and ended on Sunday with a lovely surprise.

TUESDAY: The SCBWI Industry Insiders: Picture Books & Early Readers talk in London.

On the panel were Sara Grant from Book Bound, Emma Layfield from publisher Hodder and Mark from Plumb Pudding Illustration Agency. They gave one of the best, most informative talks I have ever attended – and believe me I have attended a few.

There was none of that, ‘we’re not sure what we want but we know it when we see it’ vagueness. No indeed, we got straight to the point with marketing facts and figures and actionable advice such as, tops tips on how to write for each age group, lists of bestsellers, which supermarket promotional slots to target for picture books, the where and why of what sells in international markets, UK trends and opportunities and why there are so many picture books featuring the Queen’s Hat/Knickers/Baby…. and why there will be more still!

I’ve filled half a notebook with scrawled notes.

Here’s a couple of happy facts I’ll share with you.

  • The UK is a highly productive picture book market. There are 153,000 new picture books published every year.
  • We export 60% to the US (but not the toilet humour ones, they have a thing about those!)
  • Picture books have a maximum of 14 spreads and should be 400-500 words.
  • There should be a change of scene for each spread and the structure should look something like this:

Spread 1: Intro

Spread 2: Establish problem

Spread 3-8: Action

Spread 9: Crisis moment

Spread 10: Examine feelings

Spread 11: Solve problem

Spread 12: Emotional resolution

What is a young readers?

Sara Grant has helpfully dissipated my confusion over young readers.

These are the illustrated books for 5-8 year olds and should not be confused with reading scheme books, which are used by schools and parents to teach children to read. Writing for reading schemes is by invitation only.

Agents and publishers are actively looking for original stories for 5-8 year olds, it’ a growing segment. The SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition would also welcome more young readers entries. It opens for submissions in July.

The average length of a young reader is 5,000 words.

It was good to see some familiar faces and catch up with fellow SCBWI’s at this well attended event.

SCBWI Professionals Evening - Picture Books and Young Readers

SCBWI Industry Insiders Evening – Emma Layfield’s Picture Book Presentation (Hodder)

Thursday: Children’s Book Circle: 15 minute critique with a picture book publisher at Penguin HQ.

It’s a worthwhile experience to have a story critiqued by a professional even if it is only for 15 minutes. Sophie from Scholastic provided some very insightful advice. She explained why circular stories work so well, why characters should be very active on the page, and why I need to tone down my bossy mean uncle character.

But 15 minutes goes very quickly!

Saturday/Sunday: Winchester Literary Festival Writing Competitions.

I submitted three picture books and a reworked opening to my YA novel to this competition that also promised a mini critique for each entry.

To my surprise I was shortlisted for the First Three Pages of a Novel Prize and won. My prize is a meeting with publishers Little Brown.

Awesome.

What a week!

Now I must get back to editing my novel and that picture book!

Litreactor Critique – The results

I have had five critiques on the opening two chapters of my novel and phew they don’t hate it. I averaged 3.5 stars out of 5 over all. I scored highest on concept, structure and dialogue. Character was still a three. So that’s ok.

Everyone thought that my main character Leah sounded a realistic eighteen year old with a serious problem (she just found out her older sister is dead), though a little more exposition on her personality and her relationship with her sister would  strengthen the opening. They thought the set up of the story worked and was intriguing.

Things I need to work on:

In places I slip into telling the reader my characters feelings rather than showing them. I need to look at published authors to see how they show internal thoughts/dialogue in first person.

My body language description around dialogue and emotional scenes is lacking in places, given the shock/anger/grief the family are experiencing.

I’ve used flashback a little to show snippets of the sister relationship. I’ve been unsure how much to put in. A tutor recently said he hated them and stories should always flow forwards. But in a murder mystery, where the story unfolds in two timelines, the younger sister is retracing the steps of her big sister to find out how she died, flash back is essential I think. It’s a question of how much and how often. One critique said the flashbacks really helped to expose the characters and conflict, more so than the opening police scene. Something to think about.

My novel starts with a quote from an American Poet Laureate called Louise Gluck.

“Of two sisters, one is always the dancer, one the watcher.” This is the premise of the novel, the core theme is the sister relationship, in all ist conflict and contradiction. From the critiques I’ve learnt this is a strong concept but it needs to have a stronger presence in the opening chapters. The older sister Jenna, the dancer is dead mysteriously, the younger sister Leah, the watcher is compelled to find out why. But in so doing their roles are reversed and there is danger as she follows her sister’s footsteps to the end.

All this I’ll have to tighten up after completing the first draft. So back to drafting!