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Tips for writers online at the CWIG Conference

CWIG

 

This blog post was originally published on the Book Trust website

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Joined up Reading Conference, organised by the Society of Authors, which took place this weekend.

I was there to talk about writers’ websites, alongside Sarah Benton, Sales and Marketing Manager for Hot Key Books, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare and author and History Girls’ blogger, Celia Rees. The session was chaired by author John Dougherty, who’s also part of a group of writers blogging at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

Check out illustrator Sarah McIntyre’s amazing illustration of our panel above – in which I look like I’m getting a bit overexcited!

Although it wasn’t perhaps quite as wild as Sarah’s illustration suggests, there’s no doubt that our session was quite a lively affair. There was lots to discuss and some great comments and input from the audience, who had plenty to contribute about their experience of developing their own websites and promoting their work online.

For those who weren’t there, here are some of the key areas we discussed – plus a few extra notes from me on some of the topics we didn’t have time to cover.

Authors do need a web presence

Everyone agreed that today, authors and illustrators are missing an opportunity if they don’t have a presence online. Whether it’s via a traditional author website, a blog, or a Facebook page, the web offers all kinds of ways to engage with your readers. As Hot Key’s Sarah Benton pointed out, by having your own website, you also keep control of the information about you and your books online. As a book reviewer, one of the first things I’ll do if I read a book I like by a new author is to Google them to find out more – so it’s important to make sure there’s up-to-date information about you and your books readily available.

Think about your audience

When planning what you want to do online, think about who you want to reach. If you write for teens or young adults, you might want to concentrate on content that will appeal to them. If you’re a picture book illustrator on the other hand, you might want to think more about ways to engage parents, teachers or librarians.

What platform is right for you?

Consider what sort of content you want to create, and how much time you have to commit. If you don’t think you’ll want to update your site often, you might want a more traditional ‘static’ site, which contains information about your work and how to contact you.

However, if you’re looking to build a relationship with your readers online, a blog might be a better option. You could use a simple, free web-based tool such as Blogger which is incredibly quick and easy to set up, or if you’d like a bit more control and flexibility over how your site works, you could explore WordPress, which offers you a range of different templates, some free or some which you’ll need to pay for.

There are other options too – if you’re an illustrator and want to share sketchbook pictures or images of work in progress, you might find a free platform such as Tumblr, which is specially designed for quickly and easily sharing images, would work well. Or maybe you’d like to share your visual inspirations for your books with your readers using Pinterest? Explore what’s out there and think about what would best suit your needs, as well as your audience’s.

Get help from your publisher

Don’t be afraid to ask your publisher for help or advice about setting up a blog or website. They may be able to offer helpful technical advice, whether it’s about how to get started with your own website, or how to use Twitter (all the publicists I know are expert users of social media!) They can also help promote your site by linking to you online and including it on any promotional material for your books.

Consider group blogging

If you don’t think you have time to blog regularly, but want to have a go, one approach would be to explore group blogging. Group blogs are a great way to share the work of maintaining a blog, whilst also widening your audience, helping new readers to discover you through the work of other authors in the group and vice-versa. There are some great collaborative blogs out there already, such as  Girls Heart Books, Trapped by Monsters, Picture Book Den, Authors Electric, The Edge, The History Girls and The Awfully Big Blog Adventure,, some of which might be interested in a guest post. Alternatively you could set up your own group blog with some other authors or illustrators in your field.

Be personal – and be yourself

Your website or blog doesn’t have to be just about promoting your books and providing factual information. Readers tend to be bored by straight ‘self-promotion’, but from working on the Book Trust online writer in residence scheme, one thing that I’ve learned is that they are fascinated by the creative process. They love knowing all the details of how your work comes together, right down to what biscuits you’re eating or what music you’re listening to as you work (Book Trust’s current online writer in residence, Hannah Berry, shares her ‘song du jour’ in each of her blog posts). Aspiring writers and illustrators will love your tips and advice on how to get started too.

Don’t be afraid to be personal and have fun online. Having said that, as one of the writers in the audience pointed out, it can be difficult to know what your online ‘persona’ should be. If you write for younger readers, for example, filling your Twitter timeline with swearing might not go down well with some parents. Set some sensible guidelines that you feel comfortable with, and then just be yourself.

… But don’t allow your website to take over the real business at hand!

Let’s be honest, we all know how much of a distraction the internet can be, whether it’s discussing the line-up for Strictly on Twitter or looking at pictures of kittens. Lots of the authors and illustrators in our session were frank about how the web can become a procrastination tool which stopped them from getting on with the business of writing and illustrating. Our advice? Set yourself some boundaries and avoid spreading yourself too thin. Consider whether you really need to be on every social media platform, or update your blog every day – maybe once a week is enough. Remember you don’t need to write reams – research shows that people read differently online, and actually prefer lots of small pieces to huge blocks of text. You could just write a couple of paragraphs – or even share a photo instead.

For some different approaches to author blogging, check out Sarah McIntyre’s blog, check out Sarah McIntyre’s blog, which is full of photos and illustrations of her doings or Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrated blog written from the point of view of her dog, Plum. Hot Key’s Sarah Benton has also written up some useful tips from our discussion, which you can read here.

Honey cakes and raspberry juice: launching The Wolf Princess

wolfprincess

This post was first published at http://www.booktrust.org.uk

I was delighted to be invited to go along to the launch of a fantastic new book from Chicken House, The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable.

The Wolf Princess is an enchanting and magical story, in the style of classic children’s book authors such as Eva Ibbotson.Lonely schoolgirl Sophie has always had a strange yearning to visit Russia, but never expects her dreams to come true, until an encounter with a mysterious visitor to her humdrum boarding school leads to a chance for she and two of her friends to travel their on a school trip.

teawithjam

But on arrival in St Petersburg, the three friends find themselves alone on the wrong train, and are soon lost in an unknown wilderness. They are rescued by the beautiful Princess Anna Volkonskaya, who takes them away to her crumbling yet beautiful winter palace, and intrigues them with tales of lost diamonds and her family’s tragic past. But what is really going on at the winter palace? As wolves howl in the forests outside, Sophie finds herself drawn into a remarkable adventure.

 

marivanna

Mari Vanna

What could be more appropriate then, than to celebrate the new book with a traditional Russian afternoon tea? The beautiful Mari Vanna restaurant in Knightsbridge made the perfect venue for the launch party, organised by Riot Communications.

The restaurant is richly decorated with a wealth of fascinating and idiosyncratic Russian artefacts, from framed photographs to china ornaments to elaborate samovars to beautifully patterned tiles. Chandeliers gleamed everywhere, and tables were spread with an enticing array of Russian delicacies, from tiny squares of black bread served with herring to perfect little honey cakes and fresh raspberry juice.

samovar

Tea with jam!

Barry Cunningham, Publisher of Chicken House, introduced the book and its author, describing The Wolf Princess as ‘a book you   want to hug’. Cathryn Constable spoke briefly about what motivated her to write the book, citing her long-standing love of Russian folk-tales and literature as her inspiration, before reading a tantalising extract from the book itself, in which the girls first arrive at the winter palace and meet the mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya.

Afterwards we were all given the chance to try a Russian speciality – black tea served with jam to stir into it, just as Sophie and her friends drink it in the book!

Thanks Riot Communications and Chicken House for a wonderful celebration.

Interview with Patrick Ness & Jim Kay: Carnegie & Greenaway winners

From a Monster Calls written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay

From a Monster Calls written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay

This interview was first published on the Book Trust website http://www.booktrust.org.uk

A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, has become the first book ever to win both the CILIP Carnegie and CILIP Kate Greenaway Medals. I spoke to Patrick and Jim about how it feels to share this remarkable honour.

‘One of the defining books of its generation’ is how Rachel Levy, Children’s Library Services Manager for Sutton Libraries, and Chair of the 2012 CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway judging panels, has memorably described A Monster Calls – the first book ever to win both the Carnegie and Greenaway medals.

In winning the Carnegie this year, former Booktrust online writer in residence Patrick Ness also becomes the second author ever to win the award in two consecutive years: he also won the medal in 2011 for the third part of his acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, Monsters of Men.

‘Sharing the honour with Jim is great,’ says Patrick. ‘I never expected to win the Carnegie again, but I hoped they might give the Kate Greenaway medal to Jim this year. That was my best case scenario. I never thought they would give both medals to us, so it was a huge surprise.’

Remarkably A Monster Calls is only the second children’s book Jim Kay has illustrated: he credits it with ‘changing my life’. Of winning the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, he says: ‘It was great to even be shortlisted. To win the award was just fantastic and not at all expected. It’s a wonderful feeling and it still hasn’t really sunk in. For anyone in illustration, this is a big deal. The list of winners is like a “who’s who” in illustration and it’s fantastic to think my name will be on that list alongside people like Michael Foreman.’

Patrick also acknowledges the prestige of winning the Carnegie. ‘It’s the oldest prize. CS Lewis won it, Ransome won it. It has an incredibly august history.’ But for both Patrick and Jim, it’s ultimately the Carnegie and Greenaway judging processes that set these prizes apart. The judging is rooted in the professional expertise of librarians across the country, who nominate titles to be considered for the shortlist. Patrick explains: ‘Children’s librarians are the ones who are right on the frontline, talking to teenagers and children every day about books. They are the real experts.’

The CILIP Carnegie Greenaway shadowing scheme, which sees children and young people in book groups in schools and libraries all over the country read amd discuss the shortlisted books, is also key to the prize. Patrick says the scheme is ‘brilliant: it’s one of my favourite things in the whole world…. Yesterday I spoke to several shadowing groups in Berkshire and there were a couple of hundred kids there, who were all arguing about the books. They’ve read the books – they are are excited about them, they disagree about them. It’s fantastic.’

Jim adds: ‘We’ve spent hours going through the comments on the shadowing website. I don’t have that much direct contact with readers, and what’s really interesting to me is how well they understand the books. And they’re so honest! It’s fantastic to read their comments.’

One young reviewer from the shadowing scheme described A Monster Calls as a book that ‘not only has the ability to break your heart, but to heal it as well’, touching on the emotional power of a book that Rachel Levy has described as ‘outstanding in every way… a book that readers will remember and return to over and over again.’

But for both Jim and Patrick, it’s also the format and illustration of this beautifully-presented book that make A Monster Calls special. Patrick explains: ‘Books for teenagers and older readers rarely get illustrated – almost never. We thought: why not try to break those rules? Illustration isn’t just for picture books, though picture books are glorious things. Illustration is for everyone.’

Jim adds: ‘Walker didn’t limit us to plates… I was allowed to flow in and out of the text, and that’s a hugely liberating thing for an illustrator. It’s a very rare thing – you see it more in graphic novels.’ Both hope that the book will help to set a precedent, encouraging other publishers to be more adventirous with illustrated books for older readers. Jim comments: ‘I hope it does kickstart a bit more freedom in the way that we see illustrated books, and give illustrators the opportunity to do things differently.’

Of Jim’s illustrations, Patrick says: ‘I think the reason they work so well is that they are suggestive. You never see Conor, for example – you only see silhouettes. Jim’s illustrations give you space for imagination. They create an atmosphere but they don’t tell you how to read the book. Instead they provide a landscape in which you can read the book, and that’s an important difference.’

Jim adds: ‘The text gives you a certain degree of ambiguity and the description is quite sparse. It allows the reader to evolve the story in a very personal way. As an illustrator it was great because not every character is completely pinned down. It gives you that manouverability to build a stage set around the characters and that’s really what we were trying to do.’

The book is also particularly special in that Patrick created the story from the final idea of the late children’s writer Siobhan Dowd, who died in 2007, herself a Carnegie Medal winner (posthumously for Bog Child in 2009). Patrick is specific about how he sees the relationship between Siobhan’s original idea and the finished text:

‘I don’t want to suggest that I’m somehow a conduit for Siobhan. I always think of writing as secret. You have to create a really private space to be free to create, that can’t be seen by other people. For me, in the process of writing this book, it was about bringing Siobhan along to that secret place with me.

‘Even for the best reasons, you cannot write a book as tribute… The risk of that is that you write a bad story, which would be the worst tribute. But in the introduction to the book I talk about running with the baton, and I think that’s the spirit of it. I wasn’t trying to guess what Siobhan would do, but just to grow the story as she would have done. In the end, I hope it isn’t a final tribute but something better, because it keeps people talking about her. It keeps people going back to her other books and reading them; it keeps her name in discussion. It’s a living thing, not a memorial.’

One question that many people will now be asking is whether the two have any future plans to work together. Jim explains: ‘We don’t have any concrete plans yet but I would love for us to work together again in future. I would be delighted and honoured. ‘

Brian Wildsmith: Master of Colour


I’m interrupting my own self-imposed blog hiatus because I can’t resist the opportunity to write a little something about the exhibition I saw this week – Brian Wildsmith: Master of Colour.

I’ve been a huge fan of Brian Wildsmith‘s illustrations for years, so I was excited to see that the Illustration Cupboard, a tiny (in fact, cupboard-sized) gallery, just off Piccadilly, which specialises in children’s book illustrations, was hosting a special exhibition as part of the Wildsmith at 80 celebrations organised by Oxford University Press.

Interestingly, Wildsmith’s work isn’t hugely well-known in the UK (although he is very popular in Japan, where a whole museum is dedicated to his work) although he has certainly been an important influence on other illustrators and writers, from Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne through to younger illustrators like Catherine Rayner. I especially love this quote from Michael Rosen about his childhood memories of Wildsmith’s work “My childhood was full of books, but just as the Sixties burst into life, there seemed to be something similar happening in children’s books. Floors of colour exploding across the pages with a name to match: Wildsmith. He was a wild smith. I remember feeling really envious: why hadn’t I had books as lush and wild as these?”

“Lush and wild” sums it up perfectly, as I found when I went along to the private view on Tuesday night… Although the space was so crammed full of people that getting a really good look at any of the works was more or less impossible, this is an absolutely entrancing little exhibition, exploding with vivid colour. For me, some of Wildsmith’s older works, including these animal and bird illustrations, were an especial highlight:



Wildsmith himself was at the private view, as well as another one of my all-time favourite illustrators, Shirley Hughes (wearing an amazing green hat) and I have to admit to spending most of the evening staring at them in what I can only describe as a stalker-ish fashion.

All of the works in the exhibition are for sale; although sadly even the prints are far out of my price range, I did treat myself to a signed copy of one of my childhood favourites, newly reissued by Oxford University Press to celebrate Wildsmith’s 80th year – Animal Gallery.

There’s a nice piece about Wildsmith and his work in the Independent here.

[All images by Brian Wildsmith, via Illustration Cupboard]

quote for today

Is that you, Rabbit?” said Pooh.
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and let’s see what happens.”

— A. A.Milne

Seven Stories is absolutely brilliant, by the way. Everyone should go there immediately. You can dress up as Ratty or sit in Mr Toad’s car, except when I went there the horn had broken because too many children had been pooping it. Great stuff.