Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Diana Kimpton and Wordpool - Showcase of Talent

This article on Wordpool and its founder Diana Kimpton was first published in the SCBWI magazine Words and Pictures, winter 2006. I have decided to include it on my blog because I believe it is relevant to my previous article and I have found Wordpool to be such an inspiration to me.

After the death of her eldest child, Diana Kimpton, found there was a big void in her life. For the first time in her writing career, she had no immediate writing project to concentrate on. Several months later, her creative juices got the kick-start they desired when she saw an online advert for an ebook about producing an email newsletter, ideal to promote her books.

However, after reading the ebook, the idea grew beyond all proportion. Diana decided to create a website to raise the profile of British children’s books and provide an online meeting place for children’s writers. It became a real family venture.

Together with her husband, Steve, they put the project into motion. The frog logo was her daughter’s idea and was drawn by a friend’s daughter. Reddit the Frog was born. He inspired the website’s name – Wordpool – after all, where else would a frog who loves reading live?

The site www.wordpool.co.uk was launched autumn 1999 and the discussion group consisted of three people, Diana, her son Matt and a good friend. She was surprised at how well it took off and now there is an online community of over 350 members. She made requests to publishers for new books to review and articles to add to the site and the numbers of visitors began to increase.

Diana has received hundreds of children’s books to review and this experience has taught her that a book needs something special to make it stand out from the crowd. Contrary to the thoughts of one publicity department, this does not mean filling the envelope with silver stars that take hours to vacuum off the carpet. She also found publishers vary in how much effort they put into getting reviews, which is something she now takes into account when deciding where to send her own manuscripts.

Wordpool has grown to over 300 pages and receives over 300,000 hits a month. They have expanded to create websites for authors, illustrators, publishers and others connected to the world of children’s books.

Diana recently shared her expertise on creating a website, at the November 2005 SCBWI Professional Series. She explained that the minimum components of a website are choosing a domain name and a host site. She emphasised it is important to find out about the support available before you make a decision on a host and check the initial design and build cost.

The next step is to choose a web designer. Look at sample sites and check ownership. Find out if you can you take the site away after they have designed it for you. Ask who does the maintenance and how much does it cost?

Diana gave advice on good web design and how to organise your work on a website. If you have separate pages for the different types of books you write, the navigation instantly shows your range. If you are an illustrator, subdivide your portfolio to help editors find the work they want. Sections called books, cards and wrapping paper are less useful than colour, black and white or humans, animals and landscapes.

A good website should be clear and uncluttered with lots of white space. It should have simple and consistent navigation. When designing websites, Diana applies the 'two clicks and you're there' rule. There should be no distractions and should download quickly. Ask yourself do you really need dancing penguins? The main information should be above the fold, as visitors won't scroll down unless they think it's worth the effort. There should also be a good contrast between the text and the background. Dark on light works best.

The best book Diana has found on the visual side of web design is The Non-Designer’s Web Book by Robin Williams and John Tollett (Peachpit Press – 020168859X) Diana spent hours trying to persuade people to visit Wordpool by contacting other sites that might be interested in linking to them and registering with every search engine, she could find. She explained that well-placed links are an excellent source of consistent and targeted traffic. The more sites that link to you the higher your rankings will be in search engines such as www.google.co.uk. One of the methods she found to be the most successful is putting the web address in her email signature.

You can find more of her excellent tips for authors and illustrators, at www.wordpooldesign.co.uk. The site also contains free advice about the technical side, and even has a page that lets you experiment with different colour schemes.

Don't forget that I also make and design websites. To see the types I sites I have produced, take a look at www.sunrisewebs.info

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Writing Forums

Writing can be a very lonely business and a writer can often feel isolated. To combat this isolation I have joined three writing forums. There are loads of Forums out there and I have belonged to others before, but now I try to limit myself to three so I do not get too many distractions from my work. Most of the groups I belong to are run through Yahoo! Groups and are all linked to writing for children. They are:

  • NibWeb - The Network for Information Book Writers and Editors. This is a group of professionals who write illustrated non-fiction for young people, many with backgrounds in publishing, teaching or both. This is a branch of the National Union of Journalists. There are about 50 members. www.nibweb.co.uk
  • SCBWI - The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This is a group of published and aspiring, writers and illustrators, of children's fiction. They are an international group and a relatively new forum with 118 members. www.britishscbwi.org
  • Wordpool - A friendly discussion group with 469 members who are published and unpublished children's writers, aiming at the UK market. I have belonged to this group for many years and have made lots of friends and some of them I have since met at various different writing events. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/wordpool

At all of these forums, members discuss issues to do with writing for children and give help and advice. I have found it invaluable. Often people ask the same sort of questions I may have been pondering over for weeks and just wasn't brave enough to ask myself. Sometimes little debates linked to children's writing go on with everyone adding their point of view. These can be fascinating. Sometimes I listen in or add my own snippet. The one thing they definitely counteract is feeling alone.

I've come to realise there are hundreds of aspiring writers out there and basically we are all in the same boat submitting our manuscripts to editors, with similar wishes and desires for success. Being able to share my worries and thoughts through such forums helps.

If you belong to any forums, which are different to the ones, mentioned above, whether they are for children's writers or writing for adults why not add a comment. I'd be interested to know a little about them and how they have helped you.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Writing For Children

I don't believe writing is easy and I do believe writing for children is the most difficult of all. I have often wondered why I want to write for children. Why this market above any other?

The reason I strive to write for children is not because I want to have a lasting effect on children's lives. Yes, I remember reading the Narnia books and Enid Blyton stories when I was younger and I loved them. I look fondly back at these stories, which remind me of my childhood. But, that is not why I want to write for children.

It is not even the desire to see myself published, although it would be lovely to see all my hard work appreciated by others. I'm already published. OK it’s not my children's fiction, but I've experienced the thrill of seeing my words in print and the majority of the time it was a horrible anti-climax.

I think the true reason I want to write for children is because I believe I understand children and how their minds work. I've always had an interest in Psychology. I did a degree in behavioural sciences, which means I do have a basic understanding of developmental stages, but it is more than this. I think I am more in tune with children's emotions and imaginations than I am with adults.

Maybe, I have never grown up and I am still very child-like or childish myself. It is true; I've had my fair share of tantrums and setbacks. Again, I think it is more than this. I don't like long flowery language and long descriptions. I find them boring. So the vocabulary I use naturally leans towards being more simple and easier to understand, which is more suited for the younger reader. I love short paragraphs and lots of dialogue and definitely feel that dialogue is my strength.

Also, I have a very short attention span so tend to write in short, sharp bursts, which i think is more suited to writing for the younger age range. However, the most important reason I want to write novel for children is I love the challenge.

So, if you know why you have chosen to write in your particular genre or age group, whether it is for children or adults, please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Rachel Wade's Advice

Rachel Wade is a senior editor at Hodder's Children's Books. Her advice to get your children's books noticed by publishers is:
  • From the moment you submit your manuscript be as professional as possible, remember you are trying to enter into a business agreement.
  • The hook is what really drives the book.
  • Create plot and characters you can’t leave when you start reading about them. Need to draw the reader into the book and catch their attention.
  • Have characters they can believe in.
  • Story and character are absolute key.
  • Pace is becoming faster as a lot of things are competing for attention.
  • You have to catch the reader in the first few sentences.
  • Once you’ve got a good character and the reader hooked from the beginning you can do what you like in the rest of the book.
  • Find one line that sums up what your book is about.
  • Good self-editing is crucial.
  • Show don’t tell. If your character is anxious don’t say so, write what they are doing because they are anxious.
  • Give your manuscript to as many 10- to 12-year-old kids as you can find, they will be outspoken, which can be painful but good for the book. Hodder runs a children’s book circle from a secondary school in London, to get immediate feedback about a title at manuscript level. Lucy said, “In general, kids say what they think."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The World of Children’s Publishing

More and more publishers are saying they no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts or writers should only submit through an agent. It appears that getting an agent is becoming essential for the children’s fiction writer.

Rachel Wade, a Senior Editor at Hodder Children’s Books, at the SCWBI Professional Series in March 2005 explained why they are no longer accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Of the 3,000 that landed on Hodder’s desks in the past three years, only two made it to print. Rachel’s advice is to find an agent. “The truth is that the agency is the first place to go. If you do get taken by an agent you will get read by editors.”

Not only are editors no longer reading their slushpiles, they are taking on less writers overall. Rachel continued, “Over the last three years, Hodder has decreased its list. I don’t think any publishers ever published anything they didn’t think was good, but we are taking more of the cream. And I think that is the case throughout the industry. You have to find the publisher that’s looking for the sort of book you’re writing.”

This is yet another hurdle for the unpublished author but Rachel elaborated, “We may have a smaller list but we are selling more books. So the people who are getting published are setting up a lifetime of sales and getting their books into children’s hands.”

Rachel prefers to take on fewer authors and publish them more successfully. The good news is that advances for children’s books are increasing.

Getting an editor to love your work is the biggest hurdle of all because what the editor does is become an advocate of your work within the publishing company. This is what “fitting the list” really means, If your book fits into the list, it means the editor loves it and has transmitted that enthusiasm to others. There needs to be a shared passion for the book between writer and editor.

If Rachel finds a book she likes she will take it to an editorial meeting, if others feel the same way as her it is then taken to an acquisition meeting, at which the editor has to convince the sales force and marketing people that this great book has commercial possibilities.

The final stage is completely out of the editor’s hands. It’s all about selling and whether the retail outlets can persuade the public to buy your book. The cover is an important part, as the retailer bases their judgement on whether to stock your book on the cover. A lot of innovation goes into the book cover design.

Big book chains have been centralising the ordering of books, which means that there are one or two people deciding for the chain store which books children will read all over the country. The retail market is 70% chain.

Rachel said, “Certainly, the ‘high concept’ books are the easiest to sell. We want something that is going to be commercially successful - that stands out from the crowd. Originality is something we have been looking for but there are an awful lot of books out there that are not original.”

Rachel Wade concluded by saying, “Remember, without authors there would be no publishing houses. The aim is to get loads of copies of the book into the hands of the reader.”

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Tony Bradman’s Recommended Reading

Tony Bradman in his talk for the SCBWI-BI professional series on the 22nd September 2005, suggested several books that have helped him in his career as a writer. I decided to list these books in today’s blog, as they are relevant to the previous two entries.

These books are not books aimed at writing for children but are for all writers of any genre. A couple of the books I realised I already owned, being a bit of a writing book junkie and Tony Bradman’s recommendation of them prompted me to go and take another look at them. I have highlighted them in purple, just in case you were interested.

I have also provided links to Amazon just in case you were interested in finding out more about these books. Happy reading.

The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry edited by Julia Bell and Paul Mars (Pan, 2001)
“A comprehensive guide for improving story. Contributions from forty authors provide a generous pool of information, experience and advice.”
Read reviews on Amazon

The Forest for the Trees: An Editors’ Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner (Pan, 2002)
“Betsy Lerner is an editor turned agent and provides a true insider's perspective. Everything you could ever possibly want or need to know about story is here.”
Read reviews on Amazon

Story: Substance, Structure, style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee (Methuen, 1999)
“Robert McKee is a New York ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ type who runs a popular film structuring course. The techniques he suggests can be used in all writing and not just in writing screenplays.”
Read reviews on Amazon

Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters: Storytelling Secrets from the Greatest Mind in Western Civilisation by Michael Tierno
“Tierno uses examples from some of the best films ever made to demonstrate how you can apply Aristotle's ancient insights to modern-day story.”
Read reviews on Amazon

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias (Writer’s digest Books, 1994; Walking Stick Press, 2003)
“Gets you thinking about story. All the great stories can all be found in these plots.”
Read reviews on Amazon

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (Pan, 1999)
“One of the cornerstones of modern screenwriting theory. Vogler’s ideas have been used by a whole generation of story writers.”
Read reviews on Amazon

Tony also recommended that if you are truly interested in writing, whether it is for children or adults, you should take a look at the BBC website’s writing room: www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom

Friday, May 12, 2006

Summary of the Common Pitfalls

Here is a summary of some of the common pitfalls of writing a novel identified by Tony Bradman in his talk for the SCBWI-BI professional series on the 22nd September 2005.

Although, the talk was primarily aimed at writers for the children market these pitfalls are relevant to all novel writing, no matter what genre or age group you are writing for. I have found that Tony Bradman’s suggestions are useful to keep as a checklist whilst writing my children’s novels to keep me on track. I hope you find them as useful as I have.

  • Positive characters. They need flaws.
  • Not enough characters. Two characters are not enough; you need three so they can have a relationship.
  • Too many characters. More than four or five and it is difficult to monitor them. The reader needs to understand how they feel about each other. Always have a main protagonist and sub-plot the others.
  • Over complicated set-ups. Great stories are simple with one great character, one great goal and good secondary characters. Whatever the set-up is at the beginning of the story it needs to be resolved.
  • Not thinking through implications of character and plot.
  • Reliance on plot and coincidences. If not got deep enough characters, they will not be able to resolve their problems.
  • Need to have rising levels of tension.
  • Trust yourself to cut. The work and research is important and will still be there behind the story, like an iceberg.
  • Try not to control your writing too much. You can analyse too much. Trust your instinct. Often a fear of failure can hinder. Writers can be their own worse enemies.

For a more detailed explanation of these points, take a look at yesterday’s blog: What is Story? An Evening with Tony Bradman

Thursday, May 11, 2006

What is Story? An Evening with Tony Bradman

Tony Bradman has been writing children’s fiction for over twenty-five years. He has written over 200 books and edited over 30 anthologies.

When speaking at the SCBWI-BI Professional Series, Tony said: “A story is about the problems people face and how they overcome them. It is part of everyone’s life and can be told in different forms: film, plays and poems. Story is a form with a structure of its own. Very few people know what a story is and how to do it.”

The Art of Story
Tony explained, “Often, when you start out as an author, you don’t know if a story works or not. This is a stage all writers go through. A writer needs to understand everyone reaches a stage where they don’t know if it is any good.” Tony Bradman, with his wealth of experience, often struggles with stories he is working on. He claims it is very rare for him to write something and have the confidence it is as good as he can make it.

In story, we concentrate on the pivotal point in which a character makes an action and the world reacts differently than expected. The essence of great story is surprise. The characters will have flaws that influence the plot and the plot will have conflict, which changes the characters. It is a two-way process.

“There are things that you can do that will help you through the problems of story. If you get half way through and get stuck, tease out the structures that might already be there. Step outlines and synopsis are stages of story that can help with a scene you are struggling with.”

Tony Bradman’s Approach
Tony said, “All my stories start with a single idea that needs to be developed. Often if left, a story will reveal itself.”

When he starts a new story, he makes notes and descriptions of what the story is going to be. He likes to get to know his characters. When he begins to hear the dialogue he knows he is ready to write. If he knows it is not working and he is not happy, he will revise over and over again, often waking up in the night. After editing, he can look at it and know it is complete. By the time he has finished, he knows his stories word to word.

Tony prefers to edit his writing himself. He loves the challenge. He considers that one of the things that taught him most about writing is when he worked as an editor. He used the lessons he learnt from editing other people’s work in his own writing.

Tony Bradman said: “I write a 20,000-word summary, for an 1800 word story.” He revealed that he writes the whole story without dialogue and puts a one-line description of each scene, highlighting the beginning, middle and the end, or as Philip Larkin says, a beginning, a muddle and an end. This way he can expose any weaknesses in the plot, any digressions and lack of tension. Tony believes it is the same technique for 100 as 100,000 words.

Story is divided into three acts, sometimes more, never less. Each act can be broken into scenes, and each scene can be sub-divided too. In a typical scene, the protagonist embarks on a difficult task; only to discover that what is required of him is far more demanding than he first thought. It is under these testing circumstances that 'deep character' is revealed.

Tony stressed, “The two most important aspects of story are character and plot and of the two, character always comes first.”

Creating Strong Characters
If a story is not working it is often the character that is wrong. He said, “Take a good look at your characters. Why do you like them? What do they want? They should want to solve the problem. This is the spine of the story. The key thing is to get the reader to engage with the character, so they want to know how they solve the problem.”

Tony Bradman suggests, “You need to think what is the best thing a character can get in life and how could this also be the worse thing. When people want something and do not understanding it is wrong for them it is known as a reversal. Story is a great way to explore this.”

A good example of reversal can be seen in Tony’s book, Under Pressure, where Craig, one of the thirteen-year-olds at the soccer school, wants his dad to love him and be involved in his life and when he is involved, he betrays his son by using him as a way to get money. Reversal is also evident in the sequel, Bad Boys, where Lee fights to make his own decisions, only to realise he made the wrong choices.

Tony advocates avoiding passive characters. Children are often powerless to do anything about the situations they find themselves in, such as parent’s divorce or moving home, but they should strive to deal with the problem on their own level. They have to come to terms with the fact that this event has happened and carve a new life out for themselves. The characters should always be striving for a goal. Even in 1500 words, the story problem is big and even though the child’s world is smaller, the child still tries to solve the problem.

Tony thinks hard about the character and the world they live in. He needs to find out what their problem or conflict is and starts with the problem and develops the story from that. He said, “Character is revealed in the choices a human makes under pressure. There has to be something about your main protagonists character that resolves the problem in the end.”

Tony believes the greatest stories have characters that have two levels: what you see on the surface and the flaws underneath. All great characters are flawed, part of the problem is learning about these flaws.

He said: “Writing picture books is hard. It is less easy to explore the characters, as there are fewer words.”

You can see how important characterisation is in Tony’s books, such as the Dilly the Dinosaur series, about the world’s naughtiest dinosaur and The Happy Ever After stories, which explore what happens after the fairy tale ending. Do they really live happily ever after? Does the frog prince enjoy his life at the palace with his new bride, or would he really prefer to be living in that muddy old pond? How does Cinderella cope with the Queen as a mother-in-law? This is why Tony’s books appeal not only to young readers but their parent’s aswell.

What About Plot?
Plot is about life and human condition. Tony maintained, “If the plot doesn’t work, you can fix it but if your characters aren’t working you haven’t got a story. Nobody is going to read 250 words of character description.”

Plot is the action in your story and should never be resolved by a coincidence. Everything within the story must be there for a reason. If it does not move the story forward in some way, it needs to be cut. It may be a great scene, but is it meaningless in the structure of the story?

The protagonist is an ordinary person, whose life is changed by an extraordinary event. This is the 'inciting incident'. He said, “Life is chaos and every time you do some thing, it gets worse and worse. This is true of good story. Events must build up until the hero’s problem appears unsolvable.”

The story then concerns the efforts of the protagonist to restore their life to normal. Inevitably, in the course of doing this they discover a side to themselves they were never aware of and become a better person.

Story, as a quest, has the hero’s journey in mind. It is about overcoming your greatest inner fear – your inner demon. In film, this is usually outside of the protagonist, but to overcome their fears they have to work out their inner problems. Once the problem has been overcome, they get their reward, as in the grail quest. There is usually one last great battle before the evil is destroyed and the protagonist achieves their aim.

Tony explained, “The structure of story is always there. In the beginning, you meet the character and find out what the problem is. In the middle, the problem gets worse. In the end, the problem is resolved one way or another.”