Arriving at the Bloomsbury Publishing offices on a peaceful square in central London I’ve long forgotten the earlier unwelcome alarm clock and feel an excited anticipation for the annual How To Write for Children and Young Adults Conference. Ringing the doorbell a friendly Writers & Artists staffer invites me in and directs me towards the noise of sixty other writers and a cup of tea.
Once corralled we’re given a warm welcome from Alysoun Owen, editor of the Children's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. As the conference title suggests, today is for those of us who write for children, whether just starting out or underway. The schedule shows the day is divided in two, the first half a morning workshop, the second an afternoon of talks. The only to-do prior to the day was selecting one of three workshops with a Bloomsbury published author, the choice was between picture books with Smriti Prasadam-Halls, middle grade with Sibéal Pounder or young adult with Jenny McLachlan. I chose picture books.
Smriti has a bundle of worksheets and resources for each of us taking us through a standard 32 page picture book layout, a ‘create a character’ worksheet to workshop character development, ‘build a story’ and ‘story in a sentence’ exercise sheets to add structure and focus, a ‘words & pictures’ sheet to think about how illustrations tell half the story and finally two info sheets, one on editing and one a list of writing tips. The key learning point for me was to know my characters and their environment inside and out.
Smriti Prasadam-Halls with some of her titles
Smriti is completely honest with us about her experience finding an agent and getting published. There are always going to be different opinions and interpretations, Smriti tells us, but your editor will want your book to be published at it’s best and be a bestseller so it’s a team effort to do just that. It was useful to hear that we should never ignore a niggling hunch that something is wrong in a story, even when it feels too late, though not so late that it’s already on the shelves! As our lunch break approaches Smriti finishes with some simple words of advice to tell our stories authentically, write about what matters to us, and in doing so find our voice. Once ready we should send off our work and get on with the next thing.
As the three groups merge into one again and we head out to lunch there are animated discussions proving everyone is eager to start putting their learning into practice.
An hour later we’re seated and ready for the three afternoon talks moderated by Alysoun Owen.
- First up it’s the publishers panel with Emma Lidbury, commissioning editor at Walker Books predominantly working on middle grade, and Jasmine Richards, senior commissioning editor at Oxford University Press, looking at everything from picture books, 5+ and middle grade. They both confess it can be hard to balance their writers list and commission new writers but they stay on the hunt for authentic writing (Emma) and tomorrow’s classic (Jasmine) and have good relationships with agents.
|Commissioning editors - Emma Lidbury & Jasmine Richards|
- The second talk is about the author agent relationship with Jenny McLachlan and her agent Julia Churchill. Jenny tells us candidly about her ten year journey before meeting Julia and getting published. Julia shares some of her role as agent to Jenny including pitching and contracts. Their genuine reciprocal warmth is immediately infectious. It is the stuff of my agent fantasies, and proof it can happen.
|Jenny McLachlan and her agent, Julia Churchill|
- The third talk is the children’s book agents panel with Julia Churchill from A.M.Heath, Louise Lamont from LBA Books and Clare Wallace from the Darley Anderson Agency. We all eye them as greedily as foxes staking out a chicken coop! They talk about keeping our submissions simple and sticking to the guidelines, making it as exciting as it can possibly be, and for these three agents they’re happy to consider re-submitted work, hurray!
|Agents - Julia Churchill, Claire Wallace & Louise Lamont|