Are you thinking of becoming a children's book author and illustrator? I hope my experience of getting my first children's book published in the UK will help you!

See also Super Tips on the menu for more resources for writers / illustrators,
with extra information for Scotland or the UK.


My Books: the story behind the story

Making my first children's book:
'Hamish, The Bear Who Found His Child'



Statistics!
To write and illustrate Hamish, The Bear Who Found His Child

  • 153 teddies sketched to find Hamish
  • 142 emails exchanged with Piccadilly Press. Usually short!
  • 326 hours of my work - that's the equivalent of 8 weeks, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. The publisher put in plenty hours too!
  • 14 versions of the text before getting to the final one - the publisher only saw a handful.
  • First draft: 1030 words. Final text: 500-ish words.
  • How long it took: 5 months

27 December 2001: approaching publishers

Children's books really excite me, and if I do one by the time I'm 80, I'll be well pleased. Now seems a good time to plant the seeds. I've made up half a dozen pages of samples of my illustrations and posted them to 20 children's book publishers. I've indicated that I've also written stories - being a writer as well can increase your chances. There's a reply postcard in the pack. I've been phoning their switchboards for the name of who to send them to.

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Jan/February 2002: publishers are so kind

I'm getting responses from the art directors at the publishers. Nice ones like: "I thoroughly enjoyed your illustrations". One where nothing was right. It was atrocious. It began "Sorry but to be honest ..." and I'm not telling you the rest. It made me laugh. Some kept my samples on file, though they wrote "not suitable for our present list". If they say that AND return the samples, it's a nice way of saying "***-off". These publishers don't like hurting your feelings, even though they get dozens of letters like mine every day. I phone them up. Most are incredibly kind and give me advice on developing my style.

18 January 2002: success!

No response yet from Brenda Gardner, Publisher and Managing Director at Piccadilly Press, so I phone her up. She says she'd LIKE TO MEET ME! I fall off my chair. She's travelling for a while (and I secretly want time to create a portfolio using all the recent advice), so we set a date for 12 March in London.

Jan - March 2002: frantic

I'm painting like mad and getting help from my fantastic artist/teacher sister-in-law Penny Munro. What does it mean when a publisher invites you? A nice chat with biscuits? A job? I throw my portfolio around so it doesn't look too new.

12 March 2002: meeting the publisher

"We need a teddy bear book", says Brenda Gardner. Piccadilly Press is a busy-looking open-plan affair, much smaller than I thought. She comments kindly on my portfolio, but she's obviously decided to give me work anyway. We could have met AGES ago! "What's the story?" I ask. There isn't one. I'm to write it - well, it's a team effort. She says to start by sketching a main character, and then a story will come to me. Just like that?!

I skip and hip-hop all the way back to Glasgow.

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13 to 18 March: character sketches

I've got 6 days to email Brenda some character sketches, and in 22 days time, she needs a dummy book to take to the Bologna Book Fair: for this I need to think up and write a story, draw sketches of every page, and do a couple of pages properly in colour. Oh, and a poster to put up at the Fair. I can do it. I'm cool ...

I start emailing Brenda some teddies. She'd like a squat cute little thing, lively and a bit cross. She's lent me a teddy that goes some way towards the squat-look. If you click on the pictures below, you can see sheets filled with dozens more sketches. Each time, Brenda helped me narrow down what we were looking for. She always started with 'Yes, that was really nice' before rejecting them. Kind people make the world go round.

Brenda's teddy
I emailed a first lot: 'Very nice. But...'
Then another lot: 'too cute'
'Not cute enough'
Getting there!
And finally: 'numbers 135 to 145 are it'
First roughs of teddy bears for children's book illustrations of Hamish, the bear who found his child
Hamish found at last!

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17 March: starting the story

Now I've got my character, a story is supposed to spring to mind. If I sleep a lot, will ideas come in my dreams?

19 March: story ideas

Don't have dreams. Chloe, sweet little darling, wakes me before I get to dreams.

Brenda's thinking along the lines of a little teddy bear world that's quite magical yet quite like the real world too - in a forest maybe. It's March and it's cold. I really fancy setting the story in my favourite warm beautiful place, gorgeous architecture, open all hours, cafes to sit in to sketch. Princes Square shopping centre.

The most important thing that goes on in a child, ever since birth, is the struggle between attachment and independence. One minute it's 'I'll do it myself', the next they're clinging to Mummy. In fact you spend all your life balancing your need to grow for yourself, and your need for relationships. Children love and nurture their teddies, so this story could be about the attachment between a girl and her bear. Brenda's notion of a secret teddy bear world takes my fancy, so let's make it a teddy bear shop with a secret world at the back, where they all come alive. Maybe some 'peek-a-boo' games as girl and teddy find each other in the busy shopping centre.

Actually these ideas come through a round-about route. You can see my scribbles here:

 

 

I suggest to Brenda the idea of a teddy who wants to find the child that's just right for him. Brenda thinks the concept of 'for every child there is a teddy, and for every teddy there is a child' really worth going for. She thinks it's original. I've thought of something original!

23 March: poster for Bologna Book Fair

Now onto a poster for the Bologna Book Fair. Brenda needs something to attract visitors to her stand. The Fair is the main annual event where publishers show each other their projects. Brenda needs an international co-edition: publishers from other countries who will buy the book in another language. This makes the printing affordable - all the colour layers are printed together except the last layer, black, which contains the text. All British publishers need this to be able to afford to keep producing 8000 children's titles a year!

'Too dangerous'
'Too cross -
needs the aah factor'
'Aah, he's so sweet!
Go for this one'
Poster for Bologna children's book fair by Moira Munro

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24 March: first draft of story

I've sent Brenda a first draft of the story. It's called 'How Foofy found Emma'. It's lovely and I bet she'll be really impressed.

25 March: first draft gets slashed

Brenda has axed my story.

She's faxed me a framework for each of the 12 pages of the book. There's just a sentence or two per page.
She's cut out all the strands and left just ONE plot.

I'm off for a large piece of chocolate. 70% cocoa.

Essential sustenance for any children's book illustrator

3 April: Foofy becomes Hamish

Brenda's not keen on the name 'Foofy' for our main teddy. She says it sounds like something from one of the bad manuscripts that crash through their letterbox every day. Precisely.

I go through our book of baby names. How about Frip, Frips, Grar, Gromf, Gromph, Scoots, Mitch, Scatch, Smif, Smifs, Smiffy, Frum, Frums, Scottie, Kikko, Scara, Scurachic? I think I'm digging a hole for myself here.

Brenda phones me: someone in the office suggested Hamish. I phone my friend Nick, expert on Scottish bad taste. Does Hamish, along with author/illustrator Moira Munro, suggest tartan tack? He thinks not.

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4 April: dummy book

I've had a frenzy of sketching and emailing and I'm now on time to send Brenda everything she needs to make up a dummy. A dummy is a pretend-book, with all the pages sketched out, except one or two that should look like the final thing. The text is stuck on or laid out on computer, and the whole thing is sellotaped double-sided together to show what the book will be like.

Here are a couple of the dummy pages. Pictures that fill the double-page spread alternate with pages with small vignettes, to add some variety.

Only the girl changed later on
This changed entirely
later on
Teddy bear shop - draft for Hamish, the bear who found his child

I've built on Brenda's text framework and produced a new version of the story. My first draft was rubbish. This one's brilliant.

13 April: Big Bear's bow tie

Brenda has slashed my story. I've a feeling this may may not be the last time and I'm off to stock up on chocolate.

We've agreed that the kindly big bear, whom I originally named Fizziguff, is to be called Big Bear. There's probably a reason for his bow tie. He reminds me of 'Prof', my benevolent thesis supervisor Professor Nigel Corlett.

14 April: first hurdle is over

Brenda has come back from Bologna Book Fair and says people commented very favourably, the book is definitely going ahead, and I should be very pleased. I am. Celebratory chocolate.

If she'd had to drop the project at this stage, I'd still have been paid one third of my advance, which would have covered my time well.

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15 April: the cover

I have to produce roughs for the cover by early May. The designer will then work on them. We need a strong, positive image. Here are some of the ideas I e-mail Brenda, along with her reactions.

Not enough representative of the story. Too much of "Goldilocks"
Prefers this one
'Yah, mayyyybee...'
Worried you can't see what's happening.
Hamish bear and porridge
Hamish bear on a pile of books
Hamish bear and scooter
Hamish bear in a pillow fight

The last one on the right, the pillow fight, is my favourite because of the energy in it. I think it said a lot about Hamish's character. So I add detail and colour to make it clearer.

We're regularly exchanging new story versions: today we're on draft number 7 (each time I work on the story, I re-number it - but I don't bother Brenda with every version). This one is brilliant. Brenda will be really impressed.

20 April: the contract

Brenda has asked for changes to the draft number 7.

I've been getting advice from the Association of Illustrators on the contract Brenda sent me. It's very fair and doesn't have any of the nasties you sometimes read about. The contract specifies royalties on book sales and on all kinds of other uses the illustrations could be put to (subsidiary rights). I get an advance on the royalties - if the book doesn't sell well, it's all I'll ever get.

Royalties for an author/illustrator are typically between 5% and 10% of the book's price. Half if you only do the illustrations. I'm not going to tell you what I get, but I can say that for every two or three books sold I can buy a decent Belgian chocolate.

I negotiate for little extras here and there, such as an escalator clause: if the book sells UNUSUALLY and INCREDIBLY well, my percentage royalties will increase. This gives me a satisfied little feeling.

I'm not going to be rich in a hurry. I don't quite understand how others make a full-time profession of book illustration. But I'm still in heaven - I'm doing a book, and someone believes in it enough to take a risk on it!

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24 April: changes to the first roughs

Brenda has sent me a photocopy of my dummy with requests for changes. Both the editor and the art editor have had a go at it. We need more variety for the scenes in the shop. The little girl still ought to be seen from the back or from a distance to avoid defining her race too much. I find this tricky - the best I can do is to give her a nice little neck and cute proportions. A whole new dummy is needed by 9 May.

My super-mum does lots of extra baby-sitting, and my ultra-supportive husband takes little Chloe off for the week-end. Left on my own, I work for 12-hour days. I'm on a high!

27 April: my daughter test-drives the book

My daughter Chloe is just the right age to be my guinea pig. I'm reading the story aloud to her. It sounds clunky - it didn't when I read it aloud to myself. She runs off. Was it THAT bad? She returns with an armful of teddies. There's Panda, Stripey and good old Teddy. Just the same as in the pictures. She likes that.

Just one chocolate, and I'll attack the next draft.

23 May: start on final artwork

The last week or so has felt odd. Nothing to do on the book. I could get used to this. Brenda phones - all the roughs are now fine, so I'm to paint the finished work by 14 August. She wants the whole lot in one go. I'm terrified she might not approve the painting style, and then I'd have to redo everything. She assures me that if I stick to what I did for the poster, it will be fine.

I raid the library for art books with beautiful pictures, in order to work out a colour scheme for every page. I want readers to be gasp with delight at every page. That kind of thing.

Chloe only goes to nursery 2 days a week (that was 2002 - all changed now), but there's evenings and week-ends. The cooking and shopping still get done ... exclusively by Simon. It's frustrating to lay down brushes, knowing it may be 4 days before I can start again. I am SO keen.

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10 June: the cover

We've finally got a cover we all like, with the help of Brenda's graphic designer Paul Fielding. There's even been a change to the subtitle, at the very end.

Here are a few of the cover trials - the final one is on the right.

Earlier cover for Hamish in the House of Teddies, by Moira Munro

I've repainted the final cover illustration FIVE times. I'm obsessing over the pleats in the fabric. I ask Simon, my ever-patient husband, to check them. He can't see any difference between them. Even when I point them out.

13 July: getting there ... with the help of kind friends

Phew, I've more or less finished painting. I've re-done many pages once, that's less times than I'd expected. So many friends have helped me with their comments. Penny and Janet Munro (my sister and mother in law, both artists), Dawn Crowe (graphic designer), Ali Mills (set designer with an eye for the mood various colours convey). My sister Eileen and her lyric-writer/composer of a husband Edward Hardy gave me some great sentences. My other sister Anne, a psychologist, had already checked the story. Maria Kearny, a teacher and poet, spent a long evening helping me with every word. I even asked my mum for comments (highly dangerous, but she's all right -she uses the 'Yes, very nice, but ...' technique.)

Nowadays, anyone walking into the house gets used for feedback. I can't bear to make a change without checking with someone that it's actually an improvement. I warn people I may only use a small amount of what they suggest. I only take what strikes me as obviously right. Getting comments from Brenda and editors Jane Nissen and Yasemin Ucar is different. They know about this business. Sometimes I've struggled over a paragraph, and they re-write it in one elegant, effortless phrase. Occasionally, they write something which doesn't sound like ME at all, and I propose an alternative. Editors are the unackowledged authors of many books 'written' by illustrators who fancy themselves as writers.

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23 July: all done!

After all my friends' comments, I made changes to the pictures, and now everything is finished. I'm off on holiday, and I'll give the book a complete break. That way when I return I can do a final check with a fresh pair of eyes.

I think I'll take my stuff with me just in case.

30 July: just a few more changes

I'm sitting in the sun on a sea-wall, enjoying a relaxing holiday away from it all. I've got my dummy and an armful of post-it notes on my knees, and I'm just making a few changes to the text. Simon is in charge of cooking, as usual.

I'm obsessed, but for a good reason. I owe it to other parents to write as well as I can. However awful a book is, a child may demand it over and over again. It can be torture.

7 August: all sent off

Celebration time! I've posted all the artwork off, along with the last version of the text. I'm ahead of the deadline. My mum would be proud of me.

I sit down with wee Chloe, the final dummy book on my knee. It's only the second time she's heard it - I wanted to keep it exciting for her. I ask "Do you like this story?" WHY, woman, why did you ask? What will you do with the answer? "Actually Mummy, you'd have made better use of these last 5 months spending more time with me."

Thankfully, she says she likes it and could she have her bottle of milk now.

She likes "And when Big Bear asked him to do something, he said, "NO!!!". I knew she would.

3 September: last touches

Brenda asked for a few more changes. She says that "And they both loved each other more than anything in the whole wide world" on the last page could be a bit of overkill. Knowing how supportive she is, I translate this as 'it's complete barfff', fingers down throat and so on, so I agree to the change. We're on version 14. Luckily for her, she only saw some of those 14 stages.

Final thoughts

I can't imagine it will take so much work next time round. I'll be slicker, faster. Yet I've heard that five months is quite average for illustrating a picture book, let alone writing it. I can't believe how kind Brenda has been all the way through. This has been the most fun kind of hard work I've ever done. I want to do this for ever and ever after.

Several months later:

Hurray, I am slicker and faster! I've done the next Hamish book nearly twice as fast AND had even more fun doing it. And in between I illustrated two books for another publisher, for which I had even less time. My brain must be growing new lobes.

More fun!

And now I'm visiting schools and libraries and it's a delight to get children's reactions, and then letters and drawings. An unexpected bonus of having done a children's book! Now, several years on, with several more books under my belt, I'm glad to say I'm a lot more efficient, but it's still as exciting.

Click here for links to my books. If you've enjoyed them, do post a review on Amazon. These things help!

 

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Some people who found this page helpful have asked me if they could link this page to their website.
Of course, be my guest. If you have more questions on how to get your own books published, see resources in my FAQ / Tips page.

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