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Picture Book Club #17 Catchpole Literary Agency

June’s Picture Book Club saw us back in Oxford once again with James and Lucy Catchpole. Last year, James gave feedback on pitches. This year he very kindly offered to give feedback on whole picture book texts. Obviously, we said yes please!

As a writer, when you press the send button it is a bit of a leap of faith. You’ve no real idea whether your submission will actually be seen by anyone and, if it is, by whom. This is especially true if you don’t receive any kind of reply. And if you’re lucky enough to get a reply then the standard ‘not right for our list’ email doesn’t really help you move forward.

A bit of a gift, then, to be offered the chance to be critiqued in person by a successful agent like James Catchpole. Six people bravely and generously submitted picture book texts of 600 words or less on the proviso that their work would be shared anonymously. Only they would know if the feedback was for their story. Not everyone can attend Picture Book Club in person so I’ve attempted here to summarise the feedback that James gave. Each set of tips arises from a particular submission. You won’t know the texts but I hope you find it useful.

1 – Verse versus prose – if you’re going to write in verse, make it good. The scansion and metre have to work and the verse should serve the story, not the other way round. Remember that you’re writing a picture book, not a poem. There should be room for the images to do some of the work. They’re not just there for decoration. Keep word count down. Think about 4 short lines or 2 long lines per spread. Drill down to the core idea and have a go at writing it in prose and verse. Your brilliant idea, first conceived in verse, may actually work better as a prose picture book.

2 – Make sure your story is focused on one central idea. If you are struggling to define a title that conveys the essential element of the story then this might be a sign that you haven’t pinpointed the main idea yet. Once you have drilled down to the core then carefully edit and remove everything that doesn’t serve it. If there are two (or more) separate strands in your story then bonus! You have the starting point for two stories, not just one!

3 – Your text can derive energy from working against the illustrations. The joy of picture books is that the words and pictures work together to tell the story. If you can extract extra humour, drama or meaning by using the illustrations to contrast with the text then take every opportunity to do so. Take a look at Something Fishy by Polly Dunbar or Ten Fat Sausages by Michelle Robinson and Tor Freeman to see how the illustrations work with a tight text.

4 – Using sound and onomatopoeia can be fun but be consistent. If one of your animals has a signature sound, could the others have one too? Remember you can use auditory and visual elements to inject extra depth. Try and ensure there is enough capacity in the story for illustrator to introduce visual variety or a different visual joke in each spread.

5 – most picture book publishers are looking for stories that will appeal to younger readers aged 3-6. Readers of this age are more likely to engage with a main character of the same age. Will readers of that age also identify with the core idea. Does the idea match the age of the main character?

6 – If your story is set in a magic or fantasy world then it needs to have its own rules and logic just like the real world. If you move between real and fantasy worlds then you need to lead your reader between the two carefully rather than jumping between the two seemingly at random.

That’s our 6 stories and the things we discussed on Tuesday. I hope you find them useful when reading your own texts if you’re a writer or maybe something will strike a chord when you’re reading one of your favourite picture books and you’ll understand a bit more about why it works so well!

It was a brilliant evening generating lots of discussion. Great to see a mix of well-known and new faces. And, of course, there was cake (in case you’re wondering, it’s a Peach Jam Closet! See The Catchpole’s twitter avatar)

There’s no Picture Book Club in July – we’re having a month off for good behaviour! The next meeting is in August in Exeter. Details soon!