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

 

 

Six Reasons to Write a Story Map

Despite attending writing classes, which herald the benefits of properly planning a novel, I still dive straight in, ‘pantsing it,’ with only a broad three act overview and a couple of character portraits. Why? Because I’m enthused. I have the dramatic first few scenes in my head and I want to get them down on paper before they become diluted by doubt or distraction. There’s nothing like a good start – or so I think.

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So 15,000 words into my second novel, a middle grade children’s fantasy set in today’s contemporary world with a parallel fantasy world, I get writers block. And not just for a day or a week but many weeks. My word count shrivels to a pathetic few hundred a day. I write, rewrite, rejig, leave it, come back to it and repeat (there are more words on my cuttings page than in the manuscript). I still love my story, I know there’s something charming about the idea, but I’m fed up. I’ve lost my flow and doubt I can write chapters. Perhaps I should stick to picture books and short stories. Maybe novels aren’t for me.

Crit groups are rather good at providing perspective (and a timely kick up the rear). Fellow SCBWI’s pointed out: my action was great, my fantasy world had potential BUT (there’s always a BUT) my world lacked specifics and my heroine didn’t know who she was, both literally and metaphorically, so neither did the reader.

I had to admit what I already knew deep down; I could only ‘pants it’ so far – it was time to write a proper story plan.

The very first question I asked myself was:

1.What kind of story am I writing?

A fantasy adventure, I thought. Hmmm. Turns out there’s more than one kind. I flicked through Ronald Tobias’s, 20 Plots & How To Build Them (Readers Digest), and discovered that my story borrows elements from a Quest, Adventure, Pursuit and Discovery plot. And to make matters even more confusing my story is a potential trilogy, therefore, should there be an overriding plot and different individual book plots? Common sense suggests, yes. The first book, on closer inspection, is an adventure pursuit plot. My heroine is running away at the beginning of each act, headlong into even more trouble, and there is also an overarching goal of personal discovery – she’s trying to find out who she really is. Pursuit plots work best when there are lots of unexpected twists and turns, and the purser, or his/her emissaries, should always feel close behind, which keeps tension tight. This gave me a basic structure and style to work to.

2. Every scene is complex and every paragraph, sentence and word should moves the plot forward.

Spreadsheets aren’t my favourite piece of software due to many years looking at company budgets, but they do force orderliness and empty boxesimages-6 scream:

HERE’S A GAP IN YOUR THINKING!

There’s also the dining room wall and lots of sticky notes, but I’m worried about children tampering with it or a puff of wind scattering them, so spreadsheets it is. I am also told Scrivener is very good and this in on my Christmas list.

So how to build your story map:

List chapters/scenes in the vertical cells. Separate them into three acts.

Horizontally, across the top, list all the things a sensible writer needs to consider in every scene. Here are the headings I use for each column. Adapt to suit.

  • Chapters/Scene title
  • Word Count
  • Plot summary (Briefly)
  • Editor’s notes (detail changes/things to check in next draft)
  • Setting
  • Character (list)
  • Reveals – signposts/clues/info (pacing exposition is crucial for tension)
  • Chapter/scene arc – three acts (cause/action>>> effect/emotional fallout>>>decision)
  • Conflict/tension – (should include change of polarity within scene e.g happy opening>>> tense ending.)
  • Hero’s character arc (growth/change)
  • Secondary character(s) story arc or notes
  • Meaning and symbolism

Suffice to say, it’s a lot easier to draft and edit a manuscript if all the important elements are listed and of course the map evolves as you write and rewrite.

3. Do you really know your world?

  • What does it look like?
  • What are the beliefs/values of your world?
  • What’s its history and law?
  • Who are its leaders: – religious – political – scientific – economic?
  • Does it have a different language or original/quirky phraseimages-12s or sayings?

I cannot recommend storyboards, paper or digital (pinterest), enough. We cannot feasibly visit and know all our locations, especially if they are only loosely based on reality. There is some beautiful photography and fantasy art on the Internet – endless free inspiration! You can also build mood boards for key scenes.

4. Do you really know ALL your characters?

Categorise them into:

  • Protagonists/POV characters
  • Allies
  • Antagonists – primary and secondary
  • Mentor
  • Ambiguous (good turns bad or vice-versa)
  • Subordinate/minor characters (friend or foe) that inhabit the world and make it feel real.

After I finished my story map, I listed all my characters and summarised their plot purpose. I have 21 characters, 14 have more than one scene and are important to the plot. I have two POV characters, therefore, I need to consider their understanding and reaction to all the other characters they come into contact with in the context of each scene, as well as each other. In addition, I need to map secondary characters behaviour with each other. This is why I got stuck. I simply hadn’t appreciated the number and complexity of these relationships.

Start a second excel sheet and name it ‘characters.’ List their relationship and attitude, e.g. Captain of the Guards, subordinate to King, loyal, brave, blinkered, will use blunt force, but not a brute.

Casting and interviewing your characters, finding pictures of them and including clothing and personal props, really helps to bring them alive. And it’s good fun.

Another blog post about interviewing characters will shortly follow this one.

5. Have you considered your sequel, series or prequel?

If we spend a lot of time world and character building, it’s a shame not to put all that research and effort to good use again. Drop in unresolved sub plots, interesting secondary characters or other dimensions that can be later explored. Tolkien and J.K Rowling knew how their series was going to end and the broad theme of each book, before they finished writing the first instalment. Use the different sheets in Excel to build a story arc for each book.

6. Clarity of pitch and positioning

In a covering letter, an editor will want to know what kind of book they are about to read. Clarity of purpose leads to clary of pitch, and a story map will also help you write a tight synopsis.

Best wishes and happy mapping.

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 write fantastic descriptive passages

Part 1. Places

We’ve had lots of conversations in my critique group lately about how to describe places and people.

So I thought I would check out how children’s greatest and best authors tackle it, starting with place…

Here’s an extract from…

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman.

imagesDirectly ahead of the ship a mountain rose, green-flanked and snow-capped, and a little town and harbour lay below it: wooden houses with steep roofs, an oratory spire, cranes in the harbour, and clouds of gulls wheeling and crying. The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came the land-smell too: pine-resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.

Isn’t he a master at painting scenes with words!

The passage is packed with detail. He starts by describing what Lyra can see from the deck of the ship and then he explores the smell of the place, slowly, so we are standing right next to Lyra tasting the air with her, trying to identify that part new, part familiar smell. The description also conveys a sense of Lyra’s anticipation and excitement. She has finally arrived in the North.

Also check out the punctuation. He uses a mixture of colons, commas and the conjunction ‘and’ to structure the scene. This variation prevents the passage from feeling blocky. He has also achieved a rhythmical quality with lots of doubled-up descriptions e.g. “green-flanked and snow capped,” “wooden houses and steep roofs,” “pine-resin and earth.” It’s a lovely passage to read aloud.

The Way We Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

images-3This short passage is from an early scene when Daisy arrives at her aunt’s farm jetlagged and overwhelmed. It’s appropriately short, as Daisy literally can’t take everything in. Rosoff describes the farm and its inhabitants in one broad sweep to reflect her character’s mood.

There was a welcoming committee staring at me through the window and in it were four kids, and a goat and a couple of dogs…and in the background I saw some cats scooting around after a bunch of ducks that for some reason or other were hanging out on the lawn.

A few pages later, when Daisy’s had a chance to explore, Meg Rosoff lets her pen flow.

First let’s get it clear that the house is practically falling down, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how beautiful it is. It’s made of big chunks of yellowish stone, and has a steep roof, and is shaped like an L around a big courtyard with fat pebbles set in the ground. The short part of the L has a wide arched doorway and it used to be the stable, but now it’s the kitchen and it’s huge, with zigzag brick floors and big windows all across the front and a stable door that’s left open, Whenever it’s not actually snowing, says Edmond….

 Daisy has a wonderful voice and it’s a neat technique, having your main character give the reader a tour of the house and grounds. A benefit of first person POV.

The passage goes on for two pages, which tells us that Daisy is curious by nature and rather enjoying her change of scene.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K Rowling.

I have to include Harry Potter because it haHarry Potter landscapes such iconic imagery and fantasy settings are the product of the author’s imagination, so in theory tougher for the writer to convey. What’s particularly interesting about the The Philosopher’s Stone, and typical of J.K Rowling’s style as a whole, are the scattered short descriptive passages. Individually they’re not terribly clever. They don’t have the poetic quality of Philip Pullman or the voice of Meg Rosoff’s, Daisy; but J.K Rowling works another trick here. She weaves her description around the character’s action and dialogue so cleverly, the reader feels as if the story is unfolding in its entirety in front of their eyes. A cinematic quality, which perhaps is the reason the books are so popular with such a wide range of readers.

“Yeh’ll ger yers firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,’ Hagrid called over his shoulder, ‘jus’ round this bend here. There was a loud ‘Oooooh!’ The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its window sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and windows.  ‘No more’n four to a boat,’ Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore.

Checkout that structure! Dialogue/characterisation (with a touch of foreshadowing),then action, reaction, place description, dialogue and place description again.  Great storytelling!

So five things to remember:

  • Show’ a place from the character’s viewpoint (not the author’s). A character’s mood and ability to observe/feel their surroundings can change considerably from scene to scene.
  • Detail, detail detail! Pin sharp detail makes a place seem real. A great setting can influence the mood of your protagonist and set a mood for the whole book. Know your setting’s quirks like you know the quirks of your characters.
  • Utilise all the senses. Authors rely far too much on sight.
  • Think about the descriptive words you use and the structure of your sentences. Similes, metaphors, rhythm and repetition can massively enhance a descriptive passage, as can active verbs and well placed adjectives, and yes, even the odd helpful adverb.
  • Don’t write your descriptive passages in a great lump of prose unless you are very skilled at all the above techniques, in which case, you may be excused as “being literary.”

Next post: How to write fantastic description – Part 2. People

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Being creative with words. The picture book writers tool kit.

A picture book writer’s tool kit is awesome, it’s why I write picture books. Playing with these techniques is great fun.

Remember, picture books are meant to be read out loud. So go to town – bold and wacky is good.

But remember the audience. Keep the concept and structure simple. And short!

Rhyme

There is some negativity in the industry about rhyme because of the difficulties of translation. The bigger publishers are more accepting of rhyming stories but the story has to be original and the rhyme perfectly structured and metered.

An appreciation and understanding of the techniques of rhyming poetry is essential if you are going to attempt a whole story in rhyme. If you don’t know what I mean by meter, foot and stressed/unstressed syllables, don’t attempt rhyme. There are so many easier techniques to use that are just as effective.

One option is to write the story predominantly in prose but have a short chorus in rhyme. See, The Ginger Bread Man.

Assonance is a form of rhyme called ‘vowel rhyme.’ It is the repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence. E.g. Each Peach Pear Plum (also alliteration here, see below)

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in quick succession. E.g. pitter-patter, Chicken Licken.

Rhythm

Every sentence we speak has syllables that are stressed and unstressed. Rhythm is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line of verse or prose. Rhythm and rhyme are natural partners but rhythm works fine on its own. The king of rhythm without rhyme is Michael Rosen. Check out, We are going on a Bear Hunt, and Little Rabbit Foo Foo. The Bear Hunt has a chanting feel to it. An ear for music/poetry really helps here.

We're going on a Bear hunt

Repetition

Often used alongside rhyme and rhythm (as a chorus or refrain) but also appears in narrative texts to give structure and emphasis. Breaking a repetitive pattern as the story climaxes, flags to the reader/listener something exciting is about to happen. Children learn through repetition. They find familiarity reassuring and comforting.

Onomatopoeia

Sound effects! Comics and cartoons use them to great effect and so can picture books. Children love to copy sounds. Many picture books and early readers have characters names that are onomatopoeic, e.g. Plop in The Owl Who was Afraid Of The Dark by Jill Tomlinson

For inspiration, check out this website www.writtensound.com

 Alliteration

This can be a lot of fun to write. But don’t over do it when naming characters or thinking up titles. Big Bad Bunny and Horton Hears a Who? are great examples but beware of Sammy Squirrel, Richard Rabbit, they have been done, done, done! Julia Donaldson wears the alliteration crown (as well as the rhyme, rhythm and repetition one!)

 Anthropomorphism or Personification

Is the attributing of human qualities to an animal or object. Okay there are lots of animals in picture books but not so many objects. A recent hit is, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. Each crayon writes a letter to Duncan, each has a distinct voice.

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 Hyperbole

Exaggeration is everywhere in picture books – language, art and character. Roald Dahl’s characters are a perfect example. Also check out Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog. The illustration of the black dog literally spills off the page. He’s big!

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I love overblown concepts, for example, The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. You want to read about him don’t you!

To name or not to name your character

Children love to name their pets and toys, even if that name is very simple. Hands up how many of you own a toy called Bear or Rabbit. It is not necessary to write it in the story The child can see perfectly well it’s a Bear from the picture. So whether you go with Boy, Mr. Tiger or something more imaginative such as The Almost Fearless Hamilton Squidlegger by Timothy Basil Ering (a frog), the most important thing is that your character has character and attitude, after all, most three year olds have plenty.

Remember if the name is unique, it’s memorable and ownable – alas this kind of light bulb moment doesn’t happen everyday.

Catchy titles

Titles encapsulating the story’s main character or the theme are great – but if standout is an issue, think about these alternative approaches.

Instructions: How to Wash a Woolley Mammoth by Michelle Robinson, How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers,

An invitation: You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, Guess How Much I love You by Sam McBratney

A question: Where’s Spot? By Eric Hill, Have you seen my dragon? By Steve Light

Orders: Calm Down, Boris! By Sam Lloyd, Oi! Get off our Train by John Burningham, Eat your Peas by Kes Grey

Opposite to expectations: Goldilocks and the three Dinosaurs by Mo Williams

Provocative statements: Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Dogs Don’t do Ballet by Anna Kemp, This is not my Hat by Jon Klassen

Unusual names and concepts: The Tin Forest by Helen Ward, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

Ridiculous and funny: This book just ate my dog! by Richard Byrne Shh! We have a Plan by Chris Haughton. Do not let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Williams

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Tense

There are no rules about tense, go with your instinct. Try them out and see how it changes the story.

Present tense feels immediate, faster paced, the story is happening now. I use this for action-packed or wacky stories.

Past tense is more traditional, we are being told a tale so it feels slower paced and cosy. Perfect for reassuring bedtime stories and traditional narratives.

Future tense. Huh? I hear you say. Actually it’s rather fun. Haven’t you ever said, what if…

Who’s telling the story anyway?

The 3rd person

The narrative voice is the traditional form of story telling. Most picture books are told this way and the narrator tends to stay in the main characters head.

To refresh an old fairytale considering changing the POV character e.g. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! By A Wolf. By John Scieszka

Omniscient 3rd Person

Head jumping can be confusing, especially for little ones. But if executed carefully with a simple concept, it could work. Knowing what someone else is thinking can be amusing, reassuring or surprising e.g. Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman

The 1st person

I or we can be told in rhyme, narrative, letter or diary form. There’s lots of scope for originality in the first person and it’s all about voice. The Day the Crayons Quit is composed of seven letters written by the seven crayons. Each Peach Bear Plum, I spy Tom Thumb, is a rhyme in first person. The storyteller invites the listener to spy with them. We’re going on a Bear Hunt is an adventure told by a family.

A young child’s perspective on the world can be charming for adults and an instant hit with children. Hoorah. they think, a book that talks my language! E.g. Good morning toes, Good morning feet, tangled up between my sheets (Hello Toes, Hello Feet by Ann Whitford Paul.)

2nd Person

Using the You POV is a lot less common but why not consider it as an option, it involves the reader directly in the story and children love to participate. Lots of authors use this technique for titles e.g. How to Train Your Dragon, but the main story is written in 3rd person. I can only think of You Choose, as an example of a current second person rhyme. The simple rhyme repeats the invitation ‘you choose’ on every spread. I also remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure,” books from my childhood. In these books, the reader made decisions throughout the book about how the story should progress, so it was written with the reader as the viewpoint character.

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Time and place

Don’t just think about the here and now. There’s a whole world (or universe) out there to set your story in. Real or imagined. Past, present or future. Mix it up a little.

Phew. Have I missed anything out?

Oh, yes! Lots of sticky notes, coloured pens and pencils, a decent eraser, a plain sheet artist’s notebook and a dictaphone or someone else to read it back to you, even a child if you have one handy.

Ann Whitford Paul has written a very helpful book entitled, Writing Picture Books. Her explanation of meter and poetry techniques is particularly useful for the rhythmically challenged.

Next post: Evoking emotion in characters and readers (adult and children)

It’s darn tricky I can tell you.

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!

Dialogue tags and body language – stuck using the same old phrases?

My pet phrases are:

‘His eyes narrowed,’

‘He raised his eyebrows,’

‘He frowned/glared/scowled/glanced/glowered.’

Yep, I have a real thing about eyes and dark menacing brows, to the extent I ignore the rest of the face and body. How about, ‘creased his nose,’ ‘slight curve of a smile’ ‘heart thudded,’ ‘lips twitched,’ ‘face, mask tight,’ ‘fiddled nervously.’

Here is Stephanie Meyer’s, J.K Rowling’s and Suzanne Collins’ pet phrases. http://flavorwire.com/newswire/the-most-common-phrases-in-hunger-games-harry-potter-and-twilight/

Care to share yours?