Saturday, 17 December 2011

The ones that didn't make it - Abi Burlingham










What do you do with the ones that don’t make it, with the stories that you really enjoyed writing but that never became a book? With the poems that you put your heart and soul into but whose audience was only ever the one person who put it to one side and gave it a ‘no’. What happens to them? What happens to the ones you loved and nurtured, re-wrote again and again, full of hope that someone would want them? What happens to those?

When I first thought about writing children’s picture books, I really had no idea what was out there and what was selling. So, before putting pen to paper, I researched it for a year. I looked at publishers' websites, ordered their catalogues, found out their submission details. I read a wonderful book, by Eric Suben and Berthe Amos, ‘Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books for Publication’ – the only book I have ever read on how to write! I also read a huge array of picture books, noting which ones I liked and why, and tried to ensure that my stories would have the same elements. I thought about the stories I’d loved as a child and what it was that had grabbed me and pulled me in.

When it came to the actual writing, I thought about characters, setting, action, crisis point, recovery from crisis, triumphing. I thought about the way the words sounded, the rhythm, the layout, how my text would be represented by an illustrator. I did sketches and paintings of my characters - this one here is of Bengo, my old bear-dog who I lost many moons ago. I even made dummy books. I was convinced that it was because of all this preparation that one of my first attempts at a children’s picture book story, ‘All Grown Up’, became my first published book, and became part of a series of picture books on growing up, along with another book I wrote, ‘Best Friends’.

So why couldn’t I sustain this? Hadn’t I found the magic recipe for story telling? No, I hadn’t. I wrote story after story that dwindled and died, convincing me that I had clearly struck lucky first the two picture books. There is an element of luck, quite a lot of it actually, in getting published – being read by the right person, sending off to the right person at the right time, unknowingly competing with someone else who has sent something off to the same person at the same time as you, a thing we really have no control over.

I continued to write, but I lost all sense of whether what I was writing was good or not. Sometimes, I thought I’d really hit on something. I’d draw from a childhood memory, convinced that a particular teddy or bike I'd had for Christmas would form the kernel of such a good story. But they came to nothing. The initial ideas in my head that I felt would make good picture books seemed to lack something when I wrote them. I instinctively knew, even as I went through the same process of sending them off to publishers, that they weren’t quite right. I began to live in hope, not that one of them would get published, but that publishers would see enough potential to give me feedback and point me in the right direction.

This was rather cheeky on my part, but publishers are very nice people, I have found, and, although I had a lot of rejections, some publishers did write back saying that they liked my writing and giving me enough constructive feedback to make me feel that I could produce something better, and more than anything, that they considered me worth encouraging.

Most of these picture book stories are now in pretty lever arch folders up in the attic – where they belong to be truthful. There’s more to writing a children’s picture book than a sweet idea, and even if you know all the ingredients, it doesn’t necessarily make your story publishable.

There are one or two stories from this period that I have hung on to… erm, well, actually, five or six. Well, I’m attached to them! But more than this, I think they are my best, unpublished, work and there is the germ of something there. That germ is in the characters. In fact, I have recently re-worked an old favourite, initially written around five years ago, reducing the main characters from four to one – as an experiment initially - to see how this change affected the other elements of the story. It did, in very surprising ways. I don’t know yet whether someone will deem it publishable, but I feel it’s worth a go.

As for the Bengo stories, The Shiny Purple Bike, Ben’s Blankie, Annie’s cakes … and all the other that came to nought, if I hadn’t written them, I probably wouldn’t have got it right for the Ruby and Grub stories, and I wouldn’t now be looking forward to the publication of ‘Buttercup Magic: A Mystery for Megan.’ We can only learn from our mistakes, and when we do hit on the right thing, publishers recognise that too.

18 comments:

JO said...

I have a huge folder on my computer labelled 'not good enough.' I really should delete it, but somehow it lives on - maybe just to remind me how much graft is involved in this writing-game.

Joan Lennon said...

"We can only learn from our mistakes" - a hard thing to accept, but very true!

Abi Burlingham said...

Jo - that's reasuring. I have a folder on my laptop called 'put to bed', but I STILL go in it sometimes just to check that there's no hope for these stories... ever the optimist!

Joan - it is a hard thing to accept isn't it? But encouraging to think that our writing will only get better!

Thank you both for commenting.

Rachel Ward said...

Coincidentally I'm cleaning out the cupboard where I keep old manuscripts and rejections letters. They're in heaps on the sitting room floor now - not sure whether to keep them or bin them. It's a difficult thing, letting go of the past, isn't it? Maybe it's important to keep some reminders of the struggle to get published. I'm not sure.

Rachel Ward said...

Or even rejection letters without the 's' - doh!

Sue Purkiss said...

It's always really interesting reading the story behind the books, and of course I have folders with stories that didn't make it. Funnily enough, I was thinking about one of them this morning, when I heard a radio piece on a similar topic to one of them. Thanks, Abi - will look out for your next picture book for the grandbabies!

Abi Burlingham said...

Rachel - keep 'em! I'm not really a hoarder, but I have all my early letters and feedback from publishers, little notes they made on mss etc. I think you're right, these reminders of how far we've come are worth keeping. Happy tidying!

Sue - isn't it strange when a topic seems to go 'poing' into the atmosphere and comes at you from all angles? I love it when that happens! Thanks re the books, hope your grandchildren get to read them at some point.

malrostan said...

Great post, Abi. I'm a 'declutterer' by nature - except when it comes to my laptop folders full of 'the ones that didn't make it'. I truly believe that some of them were just before their time. I've certainly had one, admittedly re-written, story published 10 years after I first wrote it.

Abi Burlingham said...

Oh my goodness... Malaika, that is so reassuring (drags out all 10 year old stories for re-writing.) It just goes to show though doesn't it? There are so many trends now that sometimes it is a case of the time just not being right. That gives hope to us all.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I have a huge folder on my PC too! But I do sometimes read through and get ideas for re-jigging something. It's also sometimes good to see if you've improved???

Abi Burlingham said...

This is it isn't it Pat? Sometimes a good length of time between you and 'it' helps you to see it afresh. If you just squeeze out one line or a germ of an idea from it, then that can spark a whole new piece of writing... well, that's my excuse for not having a clear out anyway ;-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Abi, your story of the hard work you did when you first wanted to be a children's writer is a lesson to all aspiring writers out there. I come across so many people who have put no research or thought into it at all because they think it's so easy. Good luck - you deserve it.

I have boxes on the cellar. And when I die they are to be burnt!

Abi Burlingham said...

Thank you Nicola, what a lovely response. It is hard work and you're right, people don't always realise this. Oh, and I have a box of matches ready for your final wish! Thanks again for your lovely comment.

Emma Pass said...

Before I realised I wanted to write YA, I tried just about everything other genre going - literary fiction, crime fiction, short stories, stories for younger children, picture books, poetry… and I've kept almost everything I've ever written. This amounts to over 18 years' worth of stuff; a huge pile of notebooks and folders and stacks of A4 paper in the top of a wardrobe (as well as piles of rejection letters, of course!).

I don't consider any of it a waste, though, because if I hadn't written those stories, I would never have found out what I *really* wanted to write. Perhaps that's why I'm so attached to them, and have hung onto them instead of throwing them away.

And, strangely enough, my debut novel is a re-write of an idea for a book I first tried to write when I was 14, then returned to a few years later. I didn't manage it then, either, but another few years down the line, I returned to it with the idea of writing it as a YA novel… so third time lucky, I guess!

Abi Burlingham said...

Thanks Emma. Exactly, we need to experiment don't we? And we need to get it wrong before we get it right. I'm the same and am very attached to my stories. Even though I recognise a lot of them are rubbish, they're still a product of hard work and ideas, so they're all part of the journey. The fact that an old idea can be re-worked into something new - like your story becoming ACID - just goes to show that an idea is sometimes worth going back to isn't it?

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malachy said...

Abi - I have five picture books due out in 2012. I originally wrote them in 2010, 2005, 2003, 1998 and 1995. Never say die, says I - if a story's good enough, it will eventually find its form and its publisher.

Teresa said...

I went on a creative writing course once and the tutor told us to never throw away a good sex scene. I've taken this advice throughout my writing career and have, like you all, piles of 'not good enough' ideas,stories or just paragraphs of work.I just can't throw them out but on days of writer's block when I'm determined to declutter or give up in frustration, just re-reading my earlier efforts inspires me to keep going and improve my talent. [Or at least I cheer up and fall about laughing at my attempts at a good sex scene. ]