Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips # 16 - Writing Within Editorial Guidelines - Robyn stories

The Seed:  Dear Hazel Hutchins,  We have a project which we hope might interest you. Attached please find a list of guidelines...

illustrations Yvonne Cathcart
The Books:  Robyn Series, Formac Publishing, 1997-2012

The Writing Tip: It was so nice to be at a point in my career where publishers had begun to approach me for material. But why did I now find myself hesitating?  Hadn't my rule always been  when the door opens a crack, jump in with both feet?  And what about the time I had lied outright, telling an editor "Yes!" when asked if a short story was part of a series...and then had needed to quickly write four more stories before my subterfuge was discovered? Where was that old "can do" spirit?

     The difference was a feeling of restriction. There is enormous freedom when one is working on one's own ideas.  Would I be able to bring the same kind of energy to this type of project?
     I did take on the challenge and (after a false start or two) I became totally comfortable with, and delighted by,  the "Robyn" character I was able to create while still writing within the guidelines. So many of the things Robyn does in the stories are variations of the embarrassing things that happened to me in grade three. I was indeed able to put my own personality into the work - hurrah! 
     Since then, I've accepted many other such offers as well.   Here are my suggestions for taking on projects of this sort
       - read all the guidelines carefully and make sure you are comfortable with them. They will almost always include length, point of view, genre, form, audience level and subject matter. There will likely be no chance to negotiate these points so if you aren't comfortable you need to back out now.     
        - be realistic in considering how long it will take you to write the piece.  Can you meet the deadline? Will it take time away from your favourite writing project, the one you really want to be working on? Or have you just finished a major project and would welcome a chance to  turn your pen in a slightly different direction?   
          - what might you gain (besides payment) from working on the piece?  Will there be some research involved that would be of particular interest to you and might lead to a different story of your own? Will the project help widen your audience as readers of this story possibly seek out more of your work? What about a back up plan -- if the publisher needs to withdraw from the project for some unforeseen reason, can you see some way in which the idea might be rewritten into a story that would have a decent chance of being sold on the open market? 
         -  most important of all, will you enjoy working on it and be proud of the finished product.

     Once you have committed, of course, always deliver your best writing.  Go on - jump in with both feet!

(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #15 - Different Wavelengths

The Seed: It seemed the most natural thing in the world to me - a child and his stuffed bear changing places. What child wouldn't want to see a favourite toy come alive for a day?  And as for the child temporarily changing places and becoming a toy - what a perfect way to experience the everyday world  from a different  point of view.
(c) Ruth Ohi 2013

The Story: Yancy and Bear  (illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Annick Press, 1996)
It's Raining, Yancy and Bear  (illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Annick Press, 1998)

The Writing Tip:  Sometimes writers become painfully aware that not everyone is on the same wave length as they might be.
     The book had only been out a few months when I happened to be speaking casually with two sales reps for the publishing company. They asked what my next book was about and I told them it was a sequel to Yancy and Bear.  That's when the look on their faces froze.  They didn't say anything further but clearly something was amiss.
     I got the explanation from the publisher.  The reps hadn't been able to sell the books. Book store owners/buyers (adults, every one of them of course!) had been completely mystified by the concept of a boy and his stuffed bear changing places. They just didn't "get it." The sequel would do even less well.
    What does a writer do in this kind of situation? I can tell you what I didn't do.  I didn't argue the merits of the book. I believed in the story ... I still do!  But I also believe that readers - children and adults - have every right to decide for themselves. And I  know that books, like children, have lives of their own.  You do the best you can while they are under your care but sooner or later you have to wish them well, watch them head out the door and see where they end up. 
       Happily, the book was being carried in libraries. Parents began to tell me that their two-year-old had discovered Yancy and Bear and insisted on having it read to them over and over.  Other parents shared stories of how their own small children had always pretended to change places with their stuffies.  And then, during school visits, students in grades one and two began telling me they'd read (and listened to!) Yancy and Bear on their class computers.
       This was early days for books in electronic format and it took me a bit of time to track down what the students were talking about.  But - yes! There it was in living colour, accessible through an internet site. It had been photographed in a manner that made full use of the delightful little vignettes with which Ruth Ohi had so lovingly illustrated the book and there was a feeling of gentle animation that went well with the nature of the story. Even today, it's alive and well and still being enjoyed through electronic format.
      The book had taken unexpected pathways but it had indeed made its own way in the world. Sometimes you just have to keep faith and enjoy what might come your way! 


(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #14 - To Steal or Not To Steal

The Seed: Several books about growing up on the prairies during the Great Depression had recently been published.  I began to think about the tales my own parents, aunts and uncles had told me about living on farms during those tough times.  Among the pieces of oral history, was there a story that I could offer to today's young audience?

(c) copyright ruth Ohi 2013

The Story:  Tess (Annick Press 1995, illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Picture Book ages 5 - 8)

The Writing Tip: The one bit of family history that most appealed to me was an anecdote about how my aunt and my dad had been sent into the fields to gather cow paddies (cow poop!) to be burned as fuel in the cook-stove during the summer months.  Dry cow paddies are free for the taking and they burn well - they are sometimes still used in less less developed parts of the world. But my aunt sensed that here in Canada the gathering was to be done secretly...not because it was bad, exactly, but because her parents were ashamed of how poor the family had become. When a neighbour happened upon her with her bag of dry cow paddies, and commented that he now understood why their house smelled so peculiar, my aunt was totally humiliated.  That sense of humiliation is what told me this story would work -- it was something today's kids would be able to associate with even while going "ewwww" at the idea of the cow paddies.
         Now my aunt, among many other accomplishments, is also a writer. She had already written about this incident for one of the farm newspapers. It had been a a short, factual article - not really what I was planning. But still, I couldn't steal her story --- I wouldn't steal anyone's story! And yet every time I sat down to write, I found my pen beginning to move in that direction.  The more I tried to forget the idea, the more it returned, stronger than ever.
       Finally I did the only reasonable thing. I phoned my aunt and asked if I could use her anecdote in my own way, turning it into a picture book for little kids.
       The answer was an unqualified "yes". And because I, too, grew up on the prairies -- some thirty years later but still surrounded by endless horizons beneath a huge and wonderful arch of sky --I was then totally free to add my own twists to the tale. The characters grew, a crises fell into place (entirely apart from my aunt's original tale) and the story began to have a life of its own.
         Is stealing a story always as simple as asking someone?  No - of course not! Nor is it as easy as simply being aware of  copyright considerations  (copyright itself is seldom simple!). But in cases where a story calls to you with a strong voice, my best tip is to follow it up in any and all ways possible.

           I will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to my wonderful Aunt Mag for the story Tess.  Besides gathering cow paddies, her life has included riding bucking broncs, driving army transport trucks in London during the Blitz (the WW II bombings), being one of Calgary's first police women and success as a writer in many different areas.
        Thanks Mag -- always!

(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.