Showing posts with label Abi Burlingham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Abi Burlingham. Show all posts

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The ones that didn't make it - Abi Burlingham










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.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Books... and more books - Abi Burlingham


Okay, I confess, I am a bit of a technophobe. I am getting around this because I have to,
because that is the way things are, and I am becoming more comfortable with technology, with social media and all that this entails… well, a little bit! But here are some things you should
know: I don’t possess a smartphone (gasp) and I don’t have a Mac (even bigger gasp) oh, and I don’t have a kindle (stop gasping I say!) And here’s the biggy… I don’t want a kindle. No,
really, I don’t. I can see all the advantages that people frequently tell me about, while at the same time still shaking my head… “They’re good on planes”, so’s a book… “They’re good when you
go on holiday”, so are books… “They take up less room in your suitcase”, pack fewer shoes.

My mind resists them.
I can feel the kindle barriers go up at the merest hint of a mention…“Have you got a k….” VROOM! They’re up! But I appear to be in the minority, and feel that, as a writer that I
should embrace what could very well be my future. In fact, WILL be my future. ‘ Buttercup
Magic: A Mystery for Megan’, the first of my new series of books, due out in April 2012, is going to be an e-book – honestly, it says so on the back! Should I be pleased? I AM pleased, of course I am, but only because I know I should be. I have tried to examine the reasons for my resistance. My findings are as follows:

- We always had books at home – lots of them. As a child, my mum would read my favourite,
CS Lewis’s, ‘The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe’ to me night after
night. She would sit on the bed beside me, turn the pages, twist them round to show me when there was a picture, and put a book mark (remember them?) between the pages.

- I loved the Asterix books and comics and would devour them, laying them out at our dining room table and copying the wonderful pictures.

- As a teenager I would spend hours knelt by my parents’ bookcase, pulling books off the shelves, holding my nose to them and breathing in that lovely smell that only books have, turning the pages. Even if I didn’t actually read them, I would explore them and immerse myself in them. I remember as a teenager reading Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’, a collection of Sylvia Plath’s poems, and dibbing in to Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’, flicking to the pictures and marvelling at the way the paper became whiter and silkier on the pages
where the pictures were, at the covers and the little illustrations that decorated the spines.

- My mum had, as it turns out, one of the earliest editions of Cecily M Barker’s ‘The Flower Fairies’, and had traced around some of the fairies in pencil, leaving a light pencil imprint on the other side of the picture. This fascinated me, along with the triangles missing from the corners of pages and the pages that slacked as the cotton stretched.

- We had two libraries that we visited when I was a child, that I still have such wonderful recollections of. One was known as ‘The Pork Pie Library’ by all the locals because of its incredible shape, round, like a cake. This library left such an impression on me that I have featured it in ‘Buttercup Magic: A Mystery for Megan’. I still remember being overawed by the shape and size of the building, and remember the first time I ever saw a Miffy book amongst the shelves. I remember where I sat to look through it, how I felt at the time, small details.

Which brings me round to the reason the barriers go up. Fear. Fear that my children’s children won’t have this. That they won’t have book shelves in their houses full of books that they can take off and explore, that they won’t be able to sit on the floor and marvel at the pages with the corner turned over, or the handwritten name in the front, or the smell of the things.

So, you see, I won’t have one. I will remain kindle-less. Am I sad… am I ‘eck! I have my book cases bursting with books and will soon need another one… bring it on!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The words in the air - Abi Burlingham

Have you heard them lately, the words in the air, floating around unseen? They can be quiet, discreet things and go unnoticed if we don't listen. Then, when they know they have your undivided attention, they will SHOUT OUT! Before you think I'm completely mad, let me explain. In fact, here's a question: have you ever been struck by a sudden thought or idea, an image maybe, or a word or two, not at a time when you were trying to think of something to write about, but seemingly out of the blue, when you weren't even thinking about your latest WIP (work in progress)? I would imagine the answer to this is a resounding YES! So you'll know what I mean by the words in the air.

The thing is, lately I haven't been listening very much. I've been far too busy getting on with proper writer type things, like editing, writing new things, plotting, re-writing old things, blogging, promoting, keeping my accounts in order so that I don't go upsetting Mr VAT, that type of thing. And, because I have immersed myself in all of this, because I have been a woman on a mission, pre-occupied with word counts and what I have and haven't finished, I have made no time for the words in the air. In fact, they seemed to have stopped appearing altogether, and what is worse, I didn't even notice!

Then, I reached a sticky point - the woman on a mission hit a brick wall (metaphorically speaking) a few thousand words into my current WIP, my first YA (young adult) novel. I had managed to get past a similar sticking point earlier on in the novel by using index cards to help my plotting, but now, as the dramatic action was supposed to increase, I found myself drawing a blank. After a lot of angsting and huffing and puffing, none of which was the slightest bit constructive, I decided to put it to one side. So, plot plan, chopped up cards, sketches, notes, were all dumped on top of a cupboard and left. I have to tell you, I was grumpy about it. After all, I was a woman on a mission. I wanted to get on with it. But it just wasn't happening for me, so I abandoned it, for three weeks.

A few days ago, two things happened on the same day - rather a coincidence. A fellow writer and friend visited a disused mine and tweeted a picture of it. My reaction was a sharp intake of breath as the image reminded me of my deep-rooted fear of enclosed spaces. The same evening, while reading a Famous Five book to my little girl, one of the characters discovered a staircase leading to an underground tunnel running under the sea. Suddenly, there it was. The answer! The missing piece in my puzzle. Why had I not thought of it before? But there's the rub. If I hadn't stopped to look at the photograph and taken an interest in somebody else's experiences, if I hadn't taken time out to read to my daughter, would I have found the answer? Probably not. I may have found another one, but it's unlikely that it would have been this one. To add to this, the idea of a tunnel, earth, sand, water, triggered another idea connected to the elements. Some of these already featured in my story, but suddenly, I realised that I could do something extra with this, something I hadn't planned at all.

It seems to me that being a writer is not always about the amount of words written, or getting the job done, although of course, these things are important. It is about being open to all sorts of things, about using what comes to us. We are opportunists and need to take time out from the physical action of writing to be inspired and to experience what is around us, to soak up what exists, sometimes to just be. Because the words in the air will come, and when they do, we need to be ready to reach out and pull them in.

Do you take time to listen to the words in the air?

Abi Burlingham