Thursday, 11 May 2017

#AmWriting - Ten things I've found invaluable since dusting down the manuscripts - A ReadItTorial

It seems a bit cheeky offering writing advice when I haven't even had anything published, but over the last month or so I've climbed back onto the writing wagon - dusting down several manuscripts I'd been working on for children's books and kicking off the whole creative process anew.

Awesome meetings with other booky folk (one in particular who shall remain nameless but knows her stuff to the extent she's almost like a children's picture book Jedi Master - You know who you are!) who are involved in publishing or who are also working on their own children's stories has been hugely inspirational, and the catalyst I needed to make me take a long hard look at some of the things I'd considered 'finished' (if any piece of creative work can truly ever be described as finished)

I've also prodded some of the things that lay unfinished, and re-assessed some of the things I'd already cheekily (but unsuccessfully) submitted to publishers and agents through open submissions.

Bringing together some of the things I have found most useful might help you too if you're starting your own writing journey in children's books. Here's ten things that really have kicked things up a notch for me.

1) Don't go it alone if you have the choice. It might go against everything you feel to start sharing your work with others before it's finished or you've got anywhere with it, even before you're really happy with it but getting useful impartial criticism from others is a huge part of why being in a writing collective or group will help you bucketloads. I'm lucky enough to be part of a small but awesome writing group that have a closed blog and facebook group - you don't even have to be in the same locale to put together a great writing group that can help you, and also let you help others through crit and comment.

2) Submit, submit, and submit again. Don't be put off by rejection and also don't instantly bin something that's been flatly rejected with no feedback. It's a massively objective business, and what doesn't work for one person might well work for someone else (and vice versa of course).

Look at your work again, tweak it perhaps, bend that sucker until it fits "The Rules" - you know the sub-1000 word / 32 page / 12 spread rules that really will gain you acceptance if you are submitting to publishers or agents who really are looking for that.

Also, if you have the chance to, build yourself some picture book grids like these (ignore the headings above each cell, apart from the obvious ones - these really are designed to help you lay out the idea 12 page spread / 32 page type of thing that picture books are built on) :

I've been using these as a method of trimming down the word count from a manuscript, and also as a method of thumbnailing stories out (you don't really need great drawing skills, just use stick figures or representative shapes around your text).

Using these is surprisingly effective for working out the 'rhythm' of a story and giving you an early idea of how the whole thing will look as an actual book.
If anyone's interested in a powerpoint version of these, give me a nudge in the comments and I'll see what I can do.

3) If you get the chance to, read your work out loud to the toughest critics in the business, yes children - your intended audience and not just your own or near-relatives.

Yes, it's all well and good to try your work out on adults but if you haven't shared your ideas with children, what on earth are you writing children's books for? Kids will be brutally honest, kids will tear your work to bits - or in rare cases they might giggle, laugh, gasp, or give you the thumbs up. If you are lucky enough to be a parent whose kids love books, all the better but it's surprising how effective reading stories aloud to non-book-loving kids can be too.

4) Despite my advice on thumbnailing and story grids, don't get too hung up on trying to visualise your work (this is a piece of advice I have to choke down as it's extremely difficult for me not to try and scribble out characters or scenes as illustrations).

Sadly, if you feel you're unwilling to make compromises should the need arise, unless you're an extremely talented commercial-quality* artist who intends to self-illustrate your children's book, your work will jointly be yours and the chosen illustrators.

You will have to meet them in a middle (figuratively, you will actually be very lucky if you ever do meet the illustrator working on your book with you) a little bit, even if you feel that the visuals aren't anything like you imagined.

Trust your editor / agent / publisher and their team of illustrators and designers, because they know what works, and ultimately what will sell. Whether or not you care about selling a zillion copies, your publisher most certainly will

* - Follow commercial artists and illustrators on twitter or facebook. If your work is as good as theirs, truly, maybe you'll have a shot. Just maybe but don't kid yourself that just because you're excellent at drawing hands or spaceships that you can cut it in children's illustration. 

5) If you're having trouble with word counts, imagine trying to read your story to a tired child at bedtime. Some kids love long books, some kids actually love them because it puts off that moment when they'll be snuggled down to sleep a bit longer. But tired cranky kids want something punchy and to the point so be as brutal as you can with your word counts, you'll be very surprised how much you can cut and still retain the core essence of your story without making it sound flat and boring. In addition you really can get too 'clever' with words sometimes. You may feel that your intended audience might benefit from learning a few lengthy and descriptive (flowery) words, but sometimes these can really break a manuscript and become irritations rather than bonuses. Again, think about the intended age group you're aiming at, not just the exceptional kids who will eat up new language challenges like hungry caterpillars!

6) Likewise, don't imagine that the 32 page / 12 spread / sub-1000 word rule is there just to make life difficult. It isn't - book publishing is a commercial venture and any publisher will want to ensure that their book fits the specifics of picture book formats they work with regularly with ease, and of course they will also want to ensure that your book won't cost publishers extra to print (unless it's really, REALLY worth it).

7) Don't be put off if someone else has a very similar idea / book out. Work with that, look at theirs, and look at yours - and start to make a list of the similarities and differences. Does it need a title tweak? Is the core theme too similar? Look at ways of twisting that, adding a subtle tweak or two, make it stand out. Similarly though, don't be tempted to plagiarise or steal someone else's idea. You might think you can pass off your clever story that's basically identical to someone else's with just a few tweaks but publishers and agents aren't stupid, and the likelihood is they will spot a copy a mile off.

8) If something's clearly not working or you're really struggling with an idea, salvage what you can and bin the thing. Honestly, this is some of the best advice I've ever had with regards to art and writing. If a story's structure is like a Jenga tower and the whole thing falls apart if you try to make recommended changes, there really is no better course of action than to shelve it and move on.

I've been particularly merciless with several manuscripts that seemed like really strong ideas and were quite dear to me, but just couldn't come together as a story at all, no matter what. I've made a mental note of the themes, and kept the original pitches but binned the rest, or in one or two cases have saved them in 'the back of the drawer' for later.

9) Be inspired by trends, but for goodness sake don't just assume it'll be an easy win by jumping on bandwagons. The timescales involved in publishing really aren't in your favour anyway (my awesome Jedi master picture book contact talked about how long it takes a book to end up on shelves once a deal has been struck - clue: It's longer than you think!)

Again, think about the saturation in the children's book market when it comes to princesses, pirates, dinosaurs and astronauts - and seriously consider whether your story idea stands out from the rest and whether a commissioning editor or agent will be able to see that for themselves. Trends are fun to try and predict, and sometimes it's easy / sometimes it's not but hey, if we could all see into the future we'd all be the next J.K. Rowling right?

10) Most of all, yes above all else - keep writing. Carry a writing journal with you (I can't begin to tell you how useful this piece of advice is if you're like me and have a memory like a sieve) or a method of being able to quickly make notes because you really never know when inspiration will strike.

Talk to other writers, particularly other unpublished writers who are fantastic folk to get to know, and are struggling with all the same things you are.

Be proud that you are a creative person, creative enough to believe that you can make and tell stories.

Never, ever, ever give up on that and also never be put off by other people's seemingly 'easy' success. Trust me on this, they will have been through the exact same process you are going through without a doubt.

Bonus: Polish your pitches. Again some of the best advice I've ever been given is to work on your pitches, imagine you're writing the Amazon blurb or back-cover blurb for your book, summarising it perfectly in a few short sentences without completely giving the game away, or playing your cards too close to your chest. Treat it as a warm-up exercise for trimming word counts or use it as a technical exercise in seeing whether you can write an idea up in a way that makes it feel zingy, fresh and appealing.

Hope some of these are as useful to you as they have been to me, and the very best of luck with your writing! See you at a literary festival some day, or in our reviews pile? That would be so cool!