5 steps along the way
1 SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators)
I joined SCBWI in 2015 and became part of a critique group. There are 4-8 of us who meet monthly to share and critique stories (a mix of picture books, middle-grade and YA).
We have writers from the UK, US, France, India, Hong Kong, South Africa and Japan. There are people who have self-published, traditionally published, and those who are just getting started. At various times, our group has included: a physicist, a journalist, an illustrator, a teacher, a private banker, a school librarian and a Baptist Minister.
They will always raise questions. They will always read my stories through their own critical lens, and my stories will always be stronger for their feedback. (And sometimes, there’s cake.)
2 Events and courses
Last year, SCBWI HK hosted events with award-winning authors and illustrators from Australia, New Zealand, the US and UK. Hearing from authors and illustrators first-hand about their processes and experiences has helped me improve my own writing.
One of last year's highlights was a private performance of The Wonky Donkey from author Craig Smith, just before a video of the book (illustrated by Katz Crowley) went viral. Here are some of the speakers we had in 2018:
In the next two months, we have workshops from award-winning authors Holly Thompson and Candy Gourlay and there will be more to follow later this year.
The Arvon Foundation runs writing courses* in the UK. I signed up for a week long residential course in 2016, which was hands down the best thing I’ve done for my writing.
For me, it was a turning point, where I said to myself that I was committed to my writing and needed to take time to develop my craft and immerse myself in it.
I also had to get myself from Hong Kong to Hebden Bridge (which is no mean feat.)
It was a practical and inspiring course, run by Joyce Dunbar and Petr Horacek, with Polly Dunbar as guest speaker.
Hot off the back of the course, I rewrote and polished my stories. I wrote new stories. A few months later, I sent three stories for a paid manuscript assessment.
*Though there is a cost to this, they have various concessions and grants available.
3 A professional manuscript assessment – The Literary Consultancy
I sent 4 picture book texts to The Literary Consultancy for a professional manuscript assessment.*
I love my critique group feedback (and all the stories I sent to TLC had been through my critique group several times as well), but the feedback from TLC was much more detailed and specific. It identified strengths and problems and gave me concrete areas to work on.
*Again, though there is a cost to this, they also offer bursaries for manuscript assessments.
4 Reading, reading, reading…
This goes without saying, but reading current picture books, both in the bookstores and in school and public libraries has definitely improved my writing.
I also like reading books about the craft of writing. Here are some of my favourite books about writing and picture books so far:
Writing Picture Books, Ann Whitford Paul
100 Great Picture Books, Martin Salisbury
Children’s Picture books, Martin Salisbury & Morag Styles
Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman
The Writer’s Map, Huw Lewis-Jones
The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry (a detailed look at rhyme and metre)
On Writing, Stephen King
“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.” Stephen King, On Writing.
Ah... the tricky bit. The actual writing. My writing has improved with hours and hours of writing, whether it’s a snatched half an hour here or there, or a solid morning or afternoon with a notebook or laptop.
There’s no shortcut for this, but getting into the habit of writing regularly has helped me develop my voice, find what works and doesn’t work for me.