In a small seaside town called Herne Bay, magical things happen.
The town’s inhabitants bustle around, oblivious to the miracles that are happening behind the charcoal grey door of Grosvenor House, 2 East Street. Frances and Torin Brown’s Grade II listed building gives off a grand, yet welcoming allure as it sits quietly in its centuries-old plot near the shore. Its proud expanse stands tall and strong as it surveys the waves that crash along the promenade to its immediate left.
If you pass by the windows and listen very carefully you might even hear murmurings of witches, bears, monsters, iguanas, worms… and not forgetting jackasses. You might think you have wandered into an alternative zoo by the sea but in reality, you have chanced upon the realm of picture book writers and their creative mischievous minds.
I was very lucky to join this literary realm. Imagine that? Me, in a room with people who know what they are talking about and are willing to share that knowledge! A whole, wonderful weekend of writing, learning and consuming everything I could about the picture book world. I knew I was in the safe hands of Rebecca Colby, (author of There Was A Wee Lassie and It’s Raining Bats & Frogs) so all was well in my world.
From the very first moment our group sat around the table, bright and breezy on the Saturday morning, Rebecca made us feel right at home. The effortless way she encouraged us look at our writing from every angle was incredible. From character driven games to get the best out of our ideas, to reading out our synopsis and tag-lines to (in my case) a very understanding audience. We climbed the mountain of ‘how do I understand the difference between Showing and Telling’ and survived to tell the tale (sorry!). It was a tough climb but the constant flow of tea, cake and hugs made the journey more than worthwhile, an intrepid literary adventure made by 5 friends who helped each other along the way.
We made our way through a suitcase-full of picture books ranging from Character Driven tales (Charlie & Lola by Lauren Child) to High-Concept stories (Shark v Train by Chris Barton). the different formats out there are baffling. I highly recommend sitting in your nearest library or bookshop and go through as many PBs as you can. You’ll be amazed.
Then we got down to the nitty gritty of what has been bothering me for years. Show don’t tell they have been shouting way into the distance above my head. I have no idea what that means! Where do you start? What’s classed as telling and what’s showing? What if I like both? What if my story needs both? There may have been some tearing out of hair and stamping of feet at this point.
And here’s my answer to that question:
Telling – A room is crowded. A simple enough sentence but what does it show you about the room? Nothing. It tells you that there is a room and that it is crowded. But that’s it.
Showing – The cramped, sweaty bodies jostled for space within the square-shaped dusty room. Now, what does that tell you about the room? It’s not one I would like to be in.
Submitting: Cover sheet – these can be varied, depending on what format you prefer. Just remember to include your name and full address/contact details, title and word count of your book, which genre and age range it refers to.
When it comes to layout of a picture book, it can depend what country you are published in or even what publisher you are using. Rebecca used Tara Lazar‘s examples to give us an exact insight into the layout of each page. Normally in the UK there are 12 spreads and in the US 14 spreads (plus 2 single spread pages).
Cover letter – should be short and to the point. Only include relevant information and keep waffling down to a minimum (my words, not Rebecca’s). Why are you writing to this particular agent? Research their client list and if you have met them before, mention that too. Introduce your manuscript and provide a 1-3 sentence synopsis – great way to practice your elevator pitches! Add in any writing credits you may have – member of SCBWI, long/short lists etc. They are keen to know a little bit about you, tell them in 1-2 sentences. Always, always, always thank them for their time.
As part of the weekend, I was also given a 1-2-1 on a submitted text. Rebecca’s insight into my character revealed so much more to me than I knew. A 5 page review of what, was in essence, a very short story proved slightly overwhelming to me and I cannot thank her enough for her thoughts and her ‘try this’, ‘try that’ encouragement to make it just right.
If you are a picture book writer, then now is your chance to shine. Book a place at the next retreat and spend some quality time with your characters. Shape them into the best-selling masterpieces we all want to read and see where they take you.
Rebecca will be at Grosvenor House again in April (15th-17th) book your place now! There are so many events coming up to help you along the path to publication – grab a pencil, a little bit of imagination and a dollop of perseverance and join in.