Tuesday, 22 September 2015

'Writing Great Books For Children': Rosemary Hayes

Q: When is a launch not a launch?
A: When it’s a panel of children’s authors joined by a publisher and an agent

Well, here we were, three Cambridge based children’s authors - myself, Pippa Goodheart and Gillian McClure - all published by Troika books, each with a new book or books to promote and an offer from the wonderful Heffers Children’s Bookshop to host an event for us.

‘Please,’ I said, ‘don’t make it a launch,’ remembering all the times I have press ganged loyal friends to come to past launches, listen to me spout and then feel duty bound to go away clutching a copy of my new book.

My new book

Then publicity whizz, Andrea Reece, came up with the idea of a panel event.

‘Let’s call it Writing Great Books for Children.  Each of you write for a different  age group, so you can talk about the whole range from babies to teenagers.’

THAT sounded better.  Something like this could be of genuine interest to children’s writers and illustrators, particularly to those just starting out and looking for a publisher.

‘ We’ll need a publisher on the panel.’

So Martin West of Troika agreed to lead the discussion.

‘And a children’s literary agent.’

Anne Clark, literary agent based in Cambridge, was approached and came on board.

Both Andrea and Heffers really got behind this idea and publicized it widely.

There was a huge response and, despite torrential rain and traffic chaos in Cambridge, the audience flooded (literally) through the door, dripping but eager and cheerful.

Crowd at Heffers

We each spoke, first, about our backgrounds and what drew us  to writing for children.  Pippa admitted that she wasn’t much of a reader as a child but then had a Saturday job at Heffers and ended up working there, surrounded by children’s books – and was hooked.

Gillian thought she was set for a career in teaching but when she couldn’t find an alphabet book to excite her reception class, she created her own, blending  the letters with her unique and enchanting illustrations. This was spotted by a schools inspector who showed it to a publisher – and the rest is history.

Unlike Pippa, I was an avid reader as a child, often living in the imaginary world of fictional characters and I even wrote a ‘book’ when I was ten and was incensed when it was rejected by a publisher! Undaunted, I started writing again when my children were young, always drawn to a young audience with their vivid and receptive imaginations.

Next, we were asked what we found rewarding about working in the genre.

Pippa spoke about how she finds the variety and range of children’s books really stimulating, Gillian about how she loves the fact that she has control over the whole book, both text and illustrations, and I spoke about the fun of researching topics for my historical novels and, more recently, about the research I’ve been doing with local gypsies for my series ‘The Travellers’.

Then Martin and Anne gave an overview of the children’s books market. Martin, as a small, independent publisher, has the freedom to publish what he wants without the encumbrance of the acquisitions meetings, marketing approval, etc, of a large publishing house.  He also mentioned that so many large publishers are wedded to series – if it’s successful let’s have more of the same – whereas the small publisher can publish more stand alone books and popular titles which have gone OP.  The digital age, too, favours the small publisher in that he can print small quantities initially and, if necessary, reprint within a week.  With his long experience in the industry, Martin can see how it has changed, particularly with authors now being expected to play a large part in marketing their books.

The panel

Anne talked about how, in many ways, this is the golden age for children’s books, the genre being taken much more seriously by publishers.  So, while there are huge opportunities, there are also a lot more writers seeking publication.  The secret to success, she said, was to write an excellent story with a distinctive ‘voice’.

Next the three of us discussed new books for children and why we admire them.  I went for Sheena Wilkinson’s ‘Declan’ stories – ‘Taking Flight’ and ‘Grounded’. I particularly admire her characterization and ‘voice’ (see above). Sheena taught teenagers and she has a really authentic and assured touch, combined with  absolutely thrilling plots – and she doesn’t shy away from difficult issues.

Then we were asked what we felt made a great children’s book.:

First and foremost, a great story with plenty of tension, a problem to solve, a crisis and a resolution, with strong credible characters to whom a young reader can relate. Setting is important, too, either grounded in the real world of school or home or in a world of the imagination with different rules and landscapes.

Pippa talked about the importance of emotional impact (tugging at the heartstrings) and how this has to be done with subtlety. And Gillian chose an example of what she felt was the perfect picture book ‘Rosie’s Walk’, a story of only 32 words, but with tension, humour and that essential ingredient that makes a child desperate to turn over the page.

There was some discussion, then, about which current bestsellers might last – stand the test of time – and why.

And finally, we were each asked to give a couple of pieces of advice to those wanting to write for children:

· Read and read. Inside and outside your genre. See how stories work
· Write from the heart. Love your subject and your characters. Don’t try and jump on bandwagons
· Get your story read by others (preferably by a authors’ advisory service so you have an objective opinion and constructive criticism)
· Don’t rush to get your work seen. Put it away and come back to it
· Don’t agonize over the first page. Crack on and then come back to it when you have relaxed into the writing
· Don’t use current buzz words or slang as these will date
· Consider entering competitions (Chicken House, for instance) as a way of getting your work read and considered seriously

The questions from the audience were interesting and varied and the feedback was really enthusiastic, especially from those just starting out on their writing careers.

I’ve learnt so much from this.  A brilliant evening.  Thank you!

RESULT! Oh, and some books were sold, too.


Emma Barnes said...

That sounds like a great evening, and a good model for anybody organising bookshop events - thanks.

Joan Lennon said...

Sounds really excellent - well done! (Great idea, Andrea!)

Stroppy Author said...

It was great!

Nick Green said...

It's a world that seems more and more mysterious to me. All of those tips and guidelines seem like very good sense, common sense even, yet I'm no closer to understanding what it is that publishers are really looking for.

My very first book did surprisingly well, taken by a mainstream publisher and shortlisted for two awards, sold to Germany, made into an audiobook. Everything I've written since then has been rejected by everyone. My current agent's backlist reads like a who's who of children's literature, and she's singularly failed to place five successive books (admittedly three of those were a trilogy).

Sorry, didn't meant to hijack this post with a whinge! But it shows that you can apparently follow all the good practice and still meet with a brick wall.

Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed reading about the Panel Event, Rosemary, and I'm glad that you captured the content so well for us. Thanks. I also enjoyed the way your happiness about the event really comes through! Well done, all of you. What a great idea!

Jackie Marchant said...

Sounds like a great event, sorry I couldn't be there.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Sounds like a great idea and something definitely to consider! So glad you had such a great evening. xx