Sunday, 30 May 2010

When is a picture book NOT a picture book?

I am reminded of the old joke. When is a door not a door?  When it's ajar!
Okay, so not the funniest joke ever but it is simple and for children of a certain age it is mildly amusing. Recognising what is appropriate and interesting to children, and at what age, is one of the first and potentially most important considerations when writing a picture book.

Picture books are delightful, bright and full of fun.  They also come in various shapes and sizes, some wordy and others with few if any words at all. So I can understand the confusion that can cause if you are new to writing them.   But at the heart of it all has to be the child it is intended for and as a writer you have to keep that child at the front of your mind.

I sometimes (although rarely) agree to read someone's picture book text before they send it to a publisher or agent.  I rarely accept partly because the time spent doing this is time I am not spending writing, but also because it will only be MY OPINION.  There is no guarantee - even if I love it- that it will find a publisher or an agent prepared to submit it to a publisher. It is their opinion that matters, not mine.

What I can often tell, almost at first glance, is whether it is actually a picture book text and not better suited to a slightly older age group or a book with few if any pictures.

 So how do I know?

It takes more than the space and time allotted here to tell you in detail but there are certain things that stand out.

1- A picture book is basically exactly that.  A book where a minimum of 50% and more often much more is picture.  The text can be minimal and often it is better if it is.  A guide (not a rule!) is that it should be no more than 1000 words but often the wordy-ness  (if that is a word) can be cut out to great effect.  Remember it is a book of two parts. Two creative skills working together the author and the illustrator. Both together makes a picture book so much more.

2-  The pictures carry some of the story - this means that the text does not describe everything that is going on or even what the characters look like or what they are doing.  This is a common mistake and it is obvious that the author has not been thinking visually.  It doesn't mean you have to draw anything  but as the story is forming in your head you need to be thinking of it as if you could imagine the pictures.  Often this makes it a little difficult when you eventually see what the illustrator draws because it can  end up nothing like you had imagined- that is not necessarily bad, in fact it is a plus.

3- The text needs to be readable.  A picture book is normally a book that is read aloud to children and for that reason it should be easy to read out loud and even better if it has a good rhythm.  Many people think it should be in rhyme but I would say little or no rhyme with a strong rhythm is much better. One main reason, to be honest, is that good interesting rhyme is incredibly difficult to do well. Publishers will also tell you that it is more difficult to get the all important translation deals if it is in rhyme.  One great test of readability is to read it out loud yourself, or even better get someone else to read it to you.  Then you will see the cumbersome parts!

4- Appropriate subject matter. By this I mean writing about things that are not right for the age group, either too complicated or not something that small children are interested in.  Something that might be appealing to an older child or something that as an adult you recall being interested in when you were young.  Ways to make sure it is right for the age  group (generally picture books are aimed  at children of 5 or under) are to spend time with small children if you can, listen to what they talk about,  read to them to see what they enjoy, or at the very least spend time in a good children's bookshop or the library and read lots of picture books.

5- Keep it simple!  The very best books are simple but that can be deceiving - make no mistake - that is where the real 'craft' is.  

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Dead Boy Talking - teenagers as publicists

Platinum Pages Publication Promotions

are a group of 13/14 yr old students from North Berwick High School who have taken on my new book Dead Boy Talking to promote and launch it.

Please do look at and follow their new blog  to see what they are up to.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A visit to ISA

This is Buster, the mascot of the International School of Aberdeen, reading one of my books during a visit there at the end of April.  You can find out more about it on my website

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Where ideas live- sparkles on the water.

I've been in the woods for a while recently.

Not literally, of course, but perhaps literary (or liter-arily, is that a word?). I lost myself, and my ability to see ideas seems to have scattered and got lost amongst the trees. It was as if they (ideas) were now hiding under the water, tantalisingly almost visible, but nothing more than a reflection when I got up close.

When people say where do you get your ideas? I usually answer that it is never a problem - and normally ideas are flowing fast and furious, scattering like sparkles on the surface of water. At times almost as difficult to pin down, but the ideas were always there for the taking. 

Of course ideas are just the beginning, the first stones on the path but without them there is no path to wander along, no direction to head in. This was unfamiliar territory.

I found myself picking bits and pieces up and discarding them - 'You're not an idea, neither are you, You are a poor excuse for an idea.... and you are no better!'

Writing takes energy, creative energy and without it nothing seems to work.  I realised that the problem wasn't that there weren't any sparkles, no ideas to jump on and ride across the water into the delights of a new story.  The problem was that the energy wasn't there. It had been leeched away by other things in my life, and without it I couldn't see the sparkles. 

Even writing a blog was something to shy away from. This perhaps explains why this blog has been silent for a while.

But I think I am on my way again, on the path through the trees and between them I can just about see a sparkle on the water...

Monday, 10 May 2010

Looking back 1# A life more interesting??

Cheating a little, I know, but I thought would be fun now and then to look back at some of the posts I've written for ABBA awfully big blog adventure  
This is the very first post I ever wrote for a blog - written in July 2008 a could of months before SPIDER came out. 


I SO wish I had spent my youth doing daring deeds like skydiving, bungee jumping or even had a gap year deep sea diving in the Philippines.I wish I’d had a quirky job, been a grape peeler for an emperor or excavated tombs in Egypt for a famous archaeologist - I would love to have been a blacksmith and been able to make elegant but deadly swords, but with my luck I would probably have been offered the job of sticking feathers onto arrows!

Why, you may ask, am I so consumed with having had a fascinating life? It’s not that I want to do anything other than write, I love it, but I am trying to write a short biography for my upcoming, first teenage novel, Spider, and I am suddenly overcome with a sense of my own boringness!
My previous attempts to make my past life sound interesting might have been fun and jolly for the young cuddly readers of my Hamish McHaggis stories, but I really want something with a little more street cred for this book and most of my previous life seems just too ordinary.

Now if I’d had a few exciting or weird jobs it would be so much easier to write a pithy and amusing little biography- like the ones I read in other writer’s books! They all seem to have done such interesting things
A friend said - 'you’re a writer, make it up!'

So I sit and scribble and score out and try again, but for some reason I can think of all sorts of exciting things for my characters to do but none of them seem right for me. I keep worrying that someone will ask me technical details about how to catch a fire-eating dragon, or extract a marble from an angry camel’s nose.

So, if you see me doing something really bizarre it may not be because I am tremendously brave or quirky… just looking to do something that I can put in my bio!