It was World Book Day this month, a time which is usually really busy for me, with two or three weeks of visits to schools, lots of preparation and driving about the country. Fun but exhausting! This year was a bit different. Visits were virtual, and I found schools were more interested in one or two short sessions than a day or half day so it was a lot quieter. But it was wonderful to still see the children and share my love of books and reading with them, and I still got to dress up in silly costumes, even if it was only from the waist up! Virtual visits can be challenging, so read on for some tips gleaned from what I’ve learned so far.
- Preparation is vital so make sure you know which platform you are using (eg Zoom, Teams, Google Classroom etc), start and finish times and who will be there. Test out your internet connection in the space you will be in. Have a backup, eg a phone, just in case the worst happens!
- A teacher should always be present for safety reasons, and if you ask them to send you the link it means they are in control of the session, with you as a visitor, and can ensure that everything is done to keep students safe.
- Check your camera before you go into the meeting so you can see if you are adequately lit and what’s behind you. A simple swivel of your laptop can give you a more professional looking background by bypassing that teetering pile of toys that appears to be balanced on your left shoulder. Propping your laptop or device up with books to make it higher can help reduce the amount of chins. Remember you may be on a giant screen in the school hall so check for spinach etc between the teeth as well!
- Have everything you need to hand and write a brief list of what you are going to do. It’s easy to go blank in the heat of the moment.
- Keep it short and sweet. I find a quick chat, a reading, an interactive song or rhyme and some questions fill around half an hour and by then the children have probably had enough, although older children can cope with more.
- Use props. Things like toys or puppets look great on the screen as you can play with perspective and the element of surprise. A hat is also appreciated!
- The most challenging part for me is reading from a picture book while sharing the pictures and including myself in the frame. I don’t have any tips on this and usually end up craning around the book like Chad. However I think as long as you get some of the pictures in and deliver the reading with gusto your listeners will enjoy it!
- If reading a picture book or illustrated book, credit the artist and talk about them and their work. Children are just as interested in that as they are in the words.
- Leave plenty of time for questions. Everyone likes to have a turn. If you run out of time, offer to answer any outstanding ones by email.
- Make sure you know where the exit button is so you’re not floundering at the end!
- Enjoy yourself and your enthusiasm will shine through.
Would you like a fun lockdown activity? Would you like it to be downloadable and free? Of course you would! May I present the Snowflake Mistake toy theatre, based on the ice palace in my picture book The Snowflake Mistake, beautifully illustrated by Maddie Frost. Now you can put on your own production of the story or make up your own ice palace tales. Comes with ‘curtain’, interior and exterior scenes, characters, the snowflake machine AND if you add a small piece of acetate or clear plastic you can insert your own snowfall!
Simply download the pdf via the link below and print the two sheets on A4 card, or print on paper and stick to the back of a cereal box (this makes it extra sturdy). Cut out and fold, following the instructions and the diagram. Use any left over strips of card to make handles for your characters. Take your seats everyone, the performance is about to begin!
With thanks to Maddie Frost and Maverick Arts Publishing
I’m very excited that critique customer and prolific writer Elizabeth Radcliffe has launched her first book, and it’s all about the most famous cat in Britain – Larry at Number 10! I sent Elizabeth some questions and I think you’ll agree her energy and enthusiasm just fizz off the page! Read on for some great tips and insight into the self publishing process.
Elizabeth, congratulations on the publication of Larry at Number 10! What made you want to write about Larry? Is he the ultimate celebrity cat, do you think?
I do believe that Larry is the ultimate celebrity cat. Larry seems to have captured the hearts of people all over the world. He has that WOW factor. I liked the idea of writing about him, but I needed a good story and when Dilyn the Dog came along – BOOM – there it was. It is basically a spin on a little person having to cope with a new baby in the house. In these crazy dark time people see Larry as a beam of light.
You’ve been working hard on social media and have had some great interaction with the political cats on Twitter – has it been easy to build up a following and what have you enjoyed about it?
For me social media has been KING! I have to say I have been working very hard on social media to build up a following posting numerous times a day. (But please see below about over posting your book). I have thoroughly enjoyed the process. Each night I prepare what I will post the next day. I also look for relevant retweets or posts that are in keeping with my social media feeds. It’s actually a lot of fun. Make sure you interact with other people’s posts as well and try and follow back or make friends with those who follow/befriend you. Social Media is like Super Sonic networking. Through Twitter I got a write up on Larry at Number 10 in the Evening Standard Diaries and will soon have an article in the Daily Star.
How does having your own cat, Boots, affect your writing?
Boots is 6 months old and very playful. It is challenging as when I am trying to write Boots has other ideas. Boots is such a character I may well write a book with him in. As I type this one handed, I am throwing toys with the other for Boots to catch.
Having critiqued a lot of your stories, I know what a prolific writer you are and how many brilliant ideas you have! Why did you pick Larry at Number 10 to publish first?
Oh, thank you Lou. I know my stories are in safe hands when I give them to you. I picked Larry as he really exists along with Gladstone, Palmerston and Dilyn. For me it was a no brainer as the characters of my book already have fans and active social media platforms. The main Larry the Cat Twitter feed @number10cat has over 400k members. This Twitter feed has highlighted my book and generated over 2k likes. This twitter feed will also run a competition soon to win a copy of my book. So, in a nutshell I wrote a book where children know that the characters are real.
What has your self-publishing experience been like? Would you recommend it to other writers?
I would recommend it. But as you are in the driving seat you need to make sure you give it 100% and again, I can’t stress enough how important social media is, to promote your book. Since last March I have given 100% to launching my book. If you really believe in your book and a traditional publishing deal is not forthcoming – GO FOR IT!
The illustrations are superb and so funny! How did you choose your illustrator, Dave Hill, and how did you find the process of working with him?
This has to be one of the joys of self-publishing I had so much control. I had lots of fun looking at illustrator portfolios and picking the illustrator I believed fitted my book. When I saw Dave Hill’s illustrations, I just knew he would be perfect to bring Larry to life. Working with Dave has been a dream we have a wonderful relationship. We chatted on the phone for ages discussing what I wanted. I was sent several sets of draft illustrations whereby I was able to add things or tweak before the final illustrations were produced. If I do another Larry book, then I would very much want Dave to illustrate again. It was a match made in heaven.
What are your aims for this year and will there be any more cat books in the future?
I would love to write more Larry books – I have so many ideas bubbling around inside my head. But I am always thinking of book ideas and if I think it will “fly” I go with it and start writing. It would also be nice to get a traditional publishing deal as well. I do keep sending manuscripts out to agents and publishers. As far as rejections are concerned, I have the T-shirt, the tea towel and some! I just keep going and sending out as I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
I have to ask – have you sent a copy to Number 10?
I will be sending to Number 10. I mean Wilfred will have a book based on pets that live in his home. How many children can say that!
And finally, what are your top three tips for authors looking to self publish?
Research – look at as many options as possible. See what reviews they have had on previous publications. Troubador Publishing whom I used were highly recommended and I had the service and result that I wanted.
Be wary – some self-publishers may be cheaper than others but be careful that the quality is perfect. I wanted my book to look like any you may see on the shelves of Waterstones and WH Smiths.
Social Media – I can’t emphasise this enough – become Facebook, Twitter and Instagram friendly (or at least use one social media platform). If you are not social media savvy – ask a friend or relative who is to assist you in setting up accounts. With these social media platforms, you have the ability to get your book out there to potentially millions of people. But be careful not to just tweet or post about your book (so there is no overkill). On my social media I post about cat and dog stuff, news on the Westminster cats etc. Use hashtags they are your friends.
Thank you Elizabeth, that was truly inspirational!
Elizabeth is happy to help anyone with queries about social media and publicity for self publishing – you can get in touch via Twitter at @ElizabethRadcl5
After what’s been probably the worst year in many of our lives, I thought it would be nice to concentrate on starting afresh. If, like me, you find writing a great form of escapism, you may be looking at plunging into a new project, and what better time to start thinking about that book or piece of writing you’ve always wanted to tackle?
I’ve decided this year to take a good look at what I like doing, what I’m good at and what I’ve always wanted to try, and create a dream project. Here are some questions I’m going to be asking myself. Maybe they can help you start your dream project too?
- What genre do I like reading the best? If it’s more than one, can I take elements from both?
- What formats do I like writing in? Narrative, script, diary form, letters, poetry? Again, can I combine more than one element?
- What would I like to try but haven’t dared?
- What have I seen other people do that I’d like to have a go at?
- What can I create that can fit into the time/energy I have?
- What can I do that makes me feel really fulfilled every time I go back to it, that I’ll enjoy the creation of as much as the end result?
- If I could choose anything to write, what would give me the ultimate writing buzz?
If you need inspiration there are lots of courses going on at the moment – check out Write Mentor, The Golden Egg Academy and Amy Sparkes’ new website The Story Godmother. Hoopla Impro are also doing some great courses on writing comedy sketches for radio and TV. And if you fancy a six week online picture book course, I’ve just updated my course material ready for a new year – click here for more details.
I can’t wait to start my dream project – even though I don’t know what it’s going to be yet! I hope you have fun finding yours.
Just like the eponymous hero of my latest picture book The Knight Who Might, I don’t give up. It took me 15 years of submitting before I was finally published in 2016 – and no one was more surprised than me that it was a picture book that turned out to be my debut. (That book was Professor McQuark and the Oojamaflip.) Picture books are tricky little blighters to write and it’s so hard to define the magic ingredients, but hopefully these pointers will give you some guidance and encouragement. Of course the most important ingredient is you, the author (see tip 7)!
See further below for a chance to win a copy of The Knight Who Might.
- The Rule of 12 – Most picture books have 12 double page spreads, so it helps to write with this in mind. Take a piece of paper and divide it into 12 sections. Think about what you want to go in each one. Make sure something happens in the middle. And what about the twist at the end? Seeing all this on one piece of paper really helps.
- Use interesting language. Children love onomatopoeia like CRASH! BANG! WHALLOP! – or be creative: SPLONGE!
- Remember the reader. An adult will probably be reading this story aloud. Make them work hard with dramatic sentences, funny voices and silly words.
- Remember the listener. The child will looking at the pictures while the story is rad. An illustrator will provide them with plenty of visual entertainment. Children’s illustrators are amazing! Leave room for this by not overwriting.
- And don’t forget the plot. Sometimes you can get to the end without noticing that SOMETHING hasn’t happened. That SOMETHING should change things.
- Look for a new angle. So many subjects have been covered by picture books that it’s hard to find a new topic. If you don’t find one, how about tackling an old topic in a new way?
- You can be the angle. You are the writer of this story – what can you bring to it?
- Treat the text like a poem. That doesn’t mean it has to rhyme, but if you were editing a poem you would look at every word to see if it earned its place. Dig down into each sentence, each phrase, and see if it adds value.
- Less is more. 500 words is a good amount to aim towards. Some of the best picture books have much less.
- Be playful. Let your inner child out. Forget about the critic leaning over your shoulder. The enjoyment will shine through.
If you’d like to learn more about writing picture books, why not sign up for my 6 week online course? Click here for details.
To win a copy of The Knight Who Might, just comment below and I’ll choose a winner at random on 17 November at 12 noon. Good luck!
Just a little reminder that there’s still time to enter two fabulous writing competitions – but only if you’re quick! Entry closes on 31 October 2020 for both the Picture Book Prize and the (new) Chapter Book Prize run by Writing Magazine together with top agent Julia Churchill and super-duper tale spinner and all round good egg Amy Sparkes. You can win valuable feedback from Amy and Julia to kickstart your writing career, and previous winners of the Picture Book Prize have gone on to be represented and published. Entry is £5 and you can find the details here:
I’m delighted to say that my new middle grade (age 8-12) book Turns Out I’m an Evil Alien Emperor is finally out! The sequel to Turns Out I’m an Alien sees Jasper and Holly jetting back into space to face the Emperor of Andromeda on his own planet and is even more full of slime, slugs, double agent pop stars and squelchy alien friends and foes than the first instalment (and probably twice as silly as well).
As a thank you for following, I’m giving away both books in the series to one winner, plus I also have two new early readers in the Maverick Early Reading Scheme to give away as well. So just let me know which you would like in the comments – Turns Out or early readers – and I’ll select the two winners at random on Monday 28 September.
Best of luck!
I hope you are all well and staying safe. Just a reminder that my critique service is still going, and also that I have some free resources on my site at the moment if you are home schooling. My next online picture book writing course starts on 6 May so if you are interested please fill out the form or pop me an email.
If you fancy a treat, tune in to Konnie Huq reading an extract from Letter to Pluto as part of her daily broadcasts to children on her YouTube channel. I love her brief history of time and the planet she creates at the end! Having watched her on Blue Peter I’m very honoured to have her read one of my books.
My latest book has been delayed until later in the year, but on the bright side this has given me a chance to add an extra surprise to the back which I hope will be fun for readers to find. Of course with libraries and bookshops closed it’s a very odd, flat time in the book world, but I would urge anyone buying a book to see if their local bookshop is offering an online service as this may help them stay open during the crisis.
My very best wishes to you and yours and be well.