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.