Writing for Children

5 Reasons Why Editors Are AMAZING

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1) THEY’RE ON TEAM “YOU”. 

As a writer, the thought of getting comments back on your work is daunting. It’s like a flashback to school. But it’s not school. Red pen isn’t a bad thing (I say that but I’ve noticed many schools have now banned red because it’s too confrontational?!). When your editor sends your text back with scribbles all over it, THIS IS GOOD. Editors aren’t the enemy. They’re on Team YOU. They want the best for your writing, for your book, and for your career (which, they hope, will be a long and happy one with THIS as your lovely publishing “home”). When you look at it like that, pen is good. It means they’ve found ways to elevate and strengthen your story. They’re busy people. If they’re sending comments, it’s because they’re invested in you. A good editor will show you that. They’ll lift your spirits and their belief in you will be infectious. You’ll go to sleep with a smile stuck to your face. Writers are delicate creatures. LET’S BE HONEST - we like a bit of love. 


2) THEY’RE YOUR INTERNAL CHAMPIONS

At a publisher, your editor is the person who will be your internal HERO. They’ll pass your book around the team and rally up the troops. They’ll do all the strategising, number crunching and Excel wizardry you need to get through the Acquisitions meeting - a magical convention under the light of a full moon where books are bought and songs are sung (or something like that). Your editor LOVES your book and wants to make everyone else fall in love with it too. See? Team YOU. All the way. 


3) THEY READ WITH FRESH EYES

Fact of the matter is you’re too close to your work. We all are. We’ve read it a zillion times and on the zillion-and-second reading, the randomest stuff starts to make sense. Resting a manuscript can help but what helps even more is someone completely removed from it. Your editor comes at the whole thing with a fresh head. They can SEE the holes. They don’t know all that beautiful backstory. They don’t know what you were absolutely trying to get across. They see what’s on the page and (drawing on all their experience) what a reader might get out of it. And it’s not just the holes - they see opportunities too! After working on a story for some time, you take certain things for granted. They’re so deeply embedded in the story - things like the setting, the gender of your characters, the POV, the tense. After a point, you may not even play around with some of those. In swoops the editor with a “WHAT IF” you hadn’t thought about and MAYBE, just maybe, it takes the whole thing to a completely different level. My PRH WriteNow editor-mentor did this for one of my stories and it blew my mind.


4) THEY KNOW THEIR STUFF 

This goes without saying really. They’ve got their fingers on the pulse. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. If they’re a top quality editor, they have good gut feel for these things. They’ve mastered the art of reviewing a manuscript, analysing it, pulling it apart to stress-test it and putting it back together again. They can do that “rotate-a-3D-object-in-space” thing but with your story. They can IMAGINE the crazy structural edit that might just transform your book. I’m not saying you should do a blanket “ACCEPT ALL CHANGES”. Look at the comments with a cup of tea and a cool head. Take the things that you agree with, question the ones you’re not sure about. ASK about the ones you can’t wrap your brain around. They won’t judge you. They love you. See above.

Which reminds me - something they don’t tell you: EDITING IS A CONVERSATION. It’s a fluid, organic thing. There’s a lot of back and forth between editor and writer. You’ll settle into a routine with this and it’ll become more natural. Over time, you’ll be more confident challenging things where you feel like you’re losing the heart of your story or asking what feels like a silly, niggly, oh-God-I’m-wasting-your-time-type question. Challenge things and ask away. But also remember, we can’t be precious about everything - editors do know their stuff. 


5) THEY’RE CONDUCTORS IN THE ORCHESTRA THAT IS THE MAKING OF YOUR BOOK

Be nice to your editors, okay? The job title is misleading. They do so much more than edit (she says as if THAT in itself isn’t a HUGE thing).  If you’re a picture book writer, they’re working across the words and pictures, liasing with the designer (who is like an editor for the illustrator), agents (if any), the copyediting team, sales, marketing, and publicity. For some types of books, this is a LOT of work. And multiply that by “A LOT” because there will be a number of books in the pipeline + the glorious backlist to look after and refresh + more books coming through submissions channels. 


And despite ALL of that, they’re totally here (within reason and as far as practicable) for your individual clingy-writerly needs. They’re your product managers, your extra pair of fresh eyes, your champions. And no matter what anyone tells you, they’re on Team YOU. 

*This post is about editors at a publishing house but a lot of this applies to any professional editor. My Golden Egg Academy Picture Book Programme editors, for example, were amazing. With one lyrical story, my editor sent comments that took MONTHS to unpack but the result was incredible - more on that another day.

Prepping for NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and it does what it says on the tin: you write a full draft of a novel in a month. It won’t be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever created but it’ll be done. And a done thing is something special. Can’t edit a blank page etc…

There’s a website for the hardcore NaNoWrimers who’d like to buddy up and there are badges and goodies on offer for ‘winners’ i.e. anyone who gets 50,000 words down in the month of November. This is my first crack at it and as I’m working on young illustrated fiction, I’m aiming at half that for the word count. My workload is already crazy (for some very exciting reasons!) and I can’t deal with another website SO, instead, I’ve joined Sarah Broadley’s ‘Nearly Nano’ club, a closed Facebook group of writers who are NEARLY Nano-ing.

It’s NaNoWriMo eve and here’s where I am with prep:

  1. Writing space cleared and prettified. (Note - the picture above is NOT a picture of my actual writing space though I’d LOVE a golden pineapple and a rusty old typewriter.)

  2. Writing buddies located (in my case the whole of the Nearly Nano club - am swimming in their slipstream!)

  3. New Moleskine prepped and favourite pen kept aside. Pen(s) hidden away from tiny hands. Last thing we need during NaNoWriMo is a pen crisis.

  4. Mentor texts chosen for the journey. I want to eat, sleep, and breathe the genre. One of the best things I learned from Louise Dean at The Novelry was the importance of studying the masters. I’m spending the first few days deconstructing some books and figuring out what makes them work. The rest of the month, I’ll be reading my mentor texts over and over alongside drafting my own. As Louise says, we have two pedals - one is writing, the other is reading!

  5. Scrivener set up with chapter breakdowns and character profiles. Synopsis ready to be tweaked, cut up and expanded into scenes in the first week of NaNoWriMo. Character profiles in dire need of fleshing out but again, I’m making time for that in the first week of November once the little ones are back in school.

  6. Training schedule fixed. This sounds out of place, I know, but hear me out. Fitness is my lead domino - it’s the One Thing I can work on that makes everything else better (thank you Gary Keller and Jay Papasan). If I’m really going to get through a 25k draft AND honour my other writing commitments AND be a decent parent, I need to be healthy. I’m done with burnout. I played that game in my 20s as a lawyer. That’s not me anymore. I’m doing things differently now. And lifting weights completely transforms my level of focus for the entire day.

  7. Timeblocking sorted for the month. I’m a HUGE fan of productivity hacks and this is one of my favourites. Since becoming a parent, I’ve lost a lot of the flexibility I had. I now have drop-offs, pick-ups, clubs, school commitments and a heap of extra life admin to contend with. My way of dealing with that is to block out time for specific writing projects and for reading.

So that’s me all set, I think. Woefully underprepared plot-wise but I am where I am and I have my reasons! It’s such a hectic month, actually, so it’s counter-intuitive to be squeezing in drafting a whole novel but I have a feeling it’ll work out. I plan on being SUPER-forgiving - it’s a Draft Zero. I just want to get something down. Also, next year, things are going to get REALLY busy so this is essentially ‘downtime’!

Enough of my rambling. MASSES of good luck to everyone attempting NaNoWriMo (or Nearly Nano) this month! WE GOT THIS. And if we don’t, well, that’s okay too…

A shout-out to the HEROES: Inclusivity in Children's Publishing PART 2

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The Reflecting Realities report published by the CLPE earlier this week paints a bleak picture of inclusivity in UK children's publishing. I had my restrained rant when it came out but today what I want to focus on is celebrating the amazing work that is already happening to help effect positive change in this area. The champions of inclusivity, the changemakers. Please read, share, and add any projects I've missed. 

Finding and nurturing underrepresented voices

Publishers

The FAB Prize: Faber & Faber (Faber Children's) joint initiative with Andlyn Agency to discover and celebrate children's writers and illustrators of BAME origins. The winners receive a year of mentoring. (Another Faber Children's commitment: 40% of all children's book covers from picture books through to YA to feature underrepresented characters in order to reflect the reality of our society. It's something the team is really passionate about.)  

Little Tiger Press Illustrator Callout: have put out a specific call for illustrators from underrepresented backgrounds to submit illustrations for their Our Town series of books set in an inclusive town with a diverse population. In their callout, they mention the fact that underrepresented illustrators may not have the means or knowhow to put together a formal portfolio - this approach, like other programmes mentioned here, helps cast the net that little bit wider. 

The Penguin Random House (PRH) UK WriteNow Programme: a one-year mentoring opportunity for underrepresented writers and illustrators (not just children's). Siena Parker who runs the scheme at PRH puts a lot of energy into getting her team on the ground across the UK to actively seek out undiscovered writers and illustrators. Applications are still open for illustrators - deadline 23rd July 2018. I've been fortunate enough to be on this life-changing programme this year and have blogged about it here.

Knights Of: a new independent publisher with inclusivity at its heart. They publish books for ages 5 through to 15. Their hiring practices are diverse, their books are "windows into as many worlds as possible" and their most unique contribution to the industry is being supremely accessible - if you want to write for them, you use their Live Chat system to pitch your idea. It's a CHAT. Doesn't get more straightforward than that. I think that's a real barrier breaker right there. They also run the #BooksMadeBetter project to get fantastic diverse books into the hands of children around the country. 

Lantana Publishing: another young independent publisher focused on inclusivity. ALL their books are by BAME authors and illustrators. 

Agents 

Many literary agents have specifically reached out to underrepresented communities to welcome their submissions and offer support whether that's in the form of highlighting a submission (and perhaps bumping it up in the queue) or offering scholarships to attend writing festivals or courses, mentoring/support and advice re navigating the industry. I won't catch all of them (please tell me if you have more to add!) but here are a few that have particularly vocal in this respect. 

Alice Williams Literary 

Alice Sutherland-Hawes at Madeleine Milburn 

Andlyn  

The Bent Agency 

The Darley Anderson Children's Book Agency 

David Higham Associates

The Good Literary Agency 

The Lindsay Literary Agency

Other organisations and initiatives

Commonword: an Arts Council funded, Manchester-based writer development programme. Commonword runs the Commonword Diversity Young Adult Fiction Prize for unpublished MG and YA novelists whose writing embraces ethnic diversity. 

Inclusive Minds: a collaboration of consultants and campaigners around the themes of inclusivity, equality and accessibility in children's literature. They offer consulting, sensitivity readers and have brought a whole host of industry professionals together through their A Place at the Table event. A full report from the event can be found here

Megaphone: an Arts Council funded writer development programme to nurture new BAME voices in publishing.  The 2016-17 scheme was a great success - mentees have found agents and had short and long fiction accepted for publication and broadcasting. The scheme is due to be repeated in the near future. 

Quarto Translations/Golden Egg Academy Award for the Golden Egg Academy children's fiction programme (application deadline 31st July 2018) 

Tiny Owl: an independent publisher worth mentioning because their beautiful books all feature BAME characters and stories.  

Behind the scenes: changing the demographics in publishing

A number of publishing houses have made pledges around diverse hiring practices to make sure their internal demographics make them more reflective of society. 

Penguin Random House, for example, has pledged that its new hires and books acquired will reflect UK society by 2025. 

Hachette has recently hired its first Diversity and Inclusion Manager

There have also been a number of paid internships and publishing positions on offer with a specific callout to underrepresented communities. That the internships are paid is significant as income-related issues have historically been a huge barrier in this industry. Again, there are many more instances here that I've missed so please flag them and I'll update the list. 

Why stop to celebrate when there's work to be done? 

I know it's important to stay ambitious and focused and it's important we don't start thinking enough is being done because it's not enough. Still, sometimes it's also worth pausing to tip your hat to the heroes, the people who are already out there making a difference. Maybe there's somewhere we can fit in too. Maybe there's a gap that needs filling. Ideas spark ideas and action sparks action...

 

See here for Representation not Diversity: Inclusivity in Children's Publishing PART 1

Representation not Diversity - Inclusivity in Children's Publishing PART 1

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Today, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published Reflecting Realities, its 2017 report on ethnic representation in UK children's literature and I can't stop thinking about it. 

  • Only 1% of the 9115 children's books published in the UK in 2017 featured a BAME main character despite Department for Education (DofE) stats for the same year indicating that 32.1% of compulsory school age children were of minority ethnic origins. 
  • Only 4% featured BAME characters. 
  • Only ONE book featuring a BAME character was defined as a 'comedy'. ONE. 
  • 10% of BAME books submitted involved social justice themes. 

This isn't a surprise to anyone in publishing but it's a sobering read all the same. 

If books are mirrors to reflect our own lives and windows into the world around us, these statistics show that we've failed children across the board. Children need to be able to see themselves and, more importantly, the people around them, in the books they read and not just in culture-driven or issues-based narratives. We need to move from ‘diversity’ to ‘representation’, from ‘niche’ to ‘normal’. 

It’s not just about bunging in a brown child to tick a box. It’s about accurately reflecting the world we live in. The reality is that Caucasians account for a tiny proportion of the world population. And that world is changing rapidly. The future of Britain – sorry, Farage – probably isn’t ‘white’. In fact, a 2014 Policy Exchange report suggests non-white people will make up 20-30% of the population by 2051 (14% in 2014). The 2017 DofE figures show that 32.1% of school-age children are of minority ethnic origins. Let that sink in. That's almost a third. Now have a quick glance at the children's section in those big, shiny bookstores. We’re talking about diversity as if it’s a fluffy, cuddly nice-to-have for children when in so many instances, this is what their classroom, their community and their future place of work will actually look like. And if it isn’t now, chances are it will be as they get older. Riz Ahmed hits the nail on the head when he says: 

We're talking about representation, not diversity. Representation is not an added extra. It's not a frill. Representation is absolutely fundamental to what people expect from culture and from politics.’

Moving from niche to normal

Diverse stories shouldn’t have to be 'niche' and underrepresented writers shouldn’t feel obliged to write about social justice issues. Of course, they should be able to - those stories are important - but they should be equally empowered to write a bonkers book without a moral angle. BAME, LGBTQ+, differently abled and low-income people have rich internal lives that don’t revolve around the elements that put them into those categories*.

In picture books, for instance, the presence of such characters can be even more powerful when it’s incidental rather than integral to the plot. A book about a zebra in space that just happens to feature a child in a wheelchair as opposed to a whole story around a boy whose life-issue is that he can’t walk normalises diversity. After all, why can’t a little brown girl have a normal dinosaur experience? Why do we need to ask the question, is this essential to the plot? Does it drive the plot forward? Who cares? We’re talking about reflecting society. How about we flip the question and ask if the erasure of diverse characters is really justified? 

Who can write diverse characters? 

Surely with sensitivity and quality research, anyone can. I often hear that fears around cultural appropriation, misrepresentation and tokenism can hold writers back - I'm going to save that one for a separate post but there are ways of dealing with this. It doesn't need to be a full-on roadblock. 

AND WHERE ARE ALL THE DIVERSE CHILDREN'S WRITERS, ANYWAY?

I for one am keenly awaiting the results of the CLPE author/illustrator study to be released in September this year. I've been going out of my mind trying to understand where the issue is. Is it top of the funnel? Underrepresented people not thinking of writing as a career? Not feeling like they belong on the bookshelves? Malorie Blackman often says 'if you can't see it, you can't be it'. Is it further down? Not enough underrepresented writers signing with agents? Or is it the publishers? Are the manuscripts too niche? Not enough of a social justice spin on them? Is it about the demographic makeup of the industry? Or the commercial viability of books by underrepresented writers? The answer is almost certainly a mix of these. The 'why' matters because it shapes what good solutions should look like. And what 'success' looks like too. 

A glimmer of hope

Since the news broke this morning, I've seen a number of posts from agents, publishers, and authors looking to effect positive change. I've had a few conversations with people in the industry about what we can do and there are things in the pipeline, which I can't talk about just yet but they fill me with hope. In their Huffington Post article, Aimée Felone, Co-Founder of publisher Knights Of, and Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, also have some wonderful suggestions as to what we can all do to make a difference. 

Finally, there's some great work being done already, which I will share in Part 2 to this post. Yes, there's a lot to do but change is afoot.

 

*The CLPE report focused on ethnic minority representation but the same principles apply to other underrepresented groups. 

 

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7 things I learnt from Storystorm 2018: How to come up with new ideas

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Storystorm is a brilliant initiative by picture book writer Tara Lazar. It's PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) reborn, revamped and significantly easier to pronounce. The focus is on ideation or idea generation - 31+ ideas in the month of January and a blog post a day to help you on your way. This was my first time participating and I'm very glad I did. It's a wonderful, supportive community and a great way to knuckle down and churn out some potential material to work on for the rest of the year.

Here's what I learnt from the process:

1) IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE: Something you see, something you read, something your child says or does, something you oh-so-casually hear when totally not desperately trying to eavesdrop at the local cafe. There's Pinterest, the cinema, and bookstores - existing titles and storylines that trigger new ones.  There's science, there's history, there's politics - now that's bursting with material (and don't get me started on picture books and politics - the way I see it, all writing is political). And dreams, of course (although, I have to say those "moments of genius" are often a lot less amazing and a lot more bizarre/scary on paper than they are in my head in the middle of the night). 

2) DISCIPLINE IS NOT A DIRTY WORD: In fact, carving out "ideation" time every day can work wonders. It's like eating or meditating at the same time every day. Your body and mind are primed to feel hungry or feel relaxed. Or to open the floodgates to new ideas. 

3) SOMETIMES THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO IS TO DO NOTHING: So, despite what I said in #2, there may be times when you need to step away from the notebook. I love mindfulness and meditation but even a bog-standard walk, a stint at the gym, cooking or doing the laundry can trigger the flow of ideas. Or ordering a takeaway, whatever works for you.

4) IT'S WORTH CASTING A WIDE NET (TO BEGIN WITH): Let your ideas do their thing. If you disqualify them before they even hit the page, you'll never really know how they feel and what they taste like. Crazy ideas can sprout less crazy ideas. And some crazy ideas are worth pursuing in their own right. At this delicate stage, it's best to shut down your inner critic and give them the day (or month) off. A Storystorm blog post by Jeanette Bradley had this fabulous quote from the Frog and Toad books:

“Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted. ‘NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!’
Frog came running up the path.
‘What’s all this noise?’ he asked.
‘My seeds will not grow,’ said Toad.
‘You are shouting too much,’ said Frog. ‘These poor seeds are afraid to grow.'”

~ Arnold Lobel, FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER

You can show up, ready and willing. You can chase after ideas. But you can't drag them out of the mud, in seed form, scream at them and expect them to grow. Some need a little more time than others. There's a time and place for purging no-gos based on questions like "does this really excite me?" and "is this a marketable idea?". This is not that stage.  

5) MORNING PAGES + STORYSTORMING = A POWERFUL COCKTAIL: I've only recently started doing Morning Pages (more on that soon!) but I can already feel the difference in my writing. Combining this practice with storystorming has been transformational. It's a simple concept, courtesy of Julia Cameron - 3 pages of long-hand stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. It clears the head of all the gunk and goo and to-dos and makes space for new ideas (and old ones). 

6) MATERIALS DO MATTER: Well, to me at least. I admire the screenwriter who plots out a masterpiece on the back of a napkin at a restaurant, I really do. But I need my Moleskines. Always softcover, always large or extra-large and always PLAIN (I've recently been converted). I cannot imagine writing on lined paper anymore. I need the freedom and world of possibility that only PLAIN paper can provide. And a biro - deep black. Find what works best for you. Some people love scraps of paper and patchwork notebooks - they fill them with joy. Find something you feel like coming back to. 

7): THERE'S A MAGIC TO COMMUNITY SPIRIT: There's something about working alongside a group of people with their eye on the same goal. It's inspiring. It's also a comfort on days when your well runs dry and what you really need is to know that you're not alone. They say writing is a lonely occupation. I think that's crazy. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. I love my alone-time with my manuscripts and when I need a sign of life, I dip back into the amazing writing communities I'm very lucky to be a part of e.g. Storystorm, SCBWI, The Golden Egg Academy, and Kritikme.  

I've wrapped up the month with 42 picture book ideas (fiction and non-fiction) - some very nascent but very much there - plus a number of ideas for flash fiction pieces, early readers and young fiction!

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Massive thank you to Tara Lazar for bringing us all together and for organising so many amazing guest posts! 

I'm now going to attempt something crazy for February. I'm going to draft a manuscript a day. A complete draft: beginning, middle, end - that sort of thing. I'm going to get out of my own way, show up every day and write. There may be a lot of chopping and changing on the road ahead but I'm a firm believer in the tyranny of the blank page. This is my way of getting past that. Wish me luck!