Monday, November 17, 2014

On Editorial Guidelines, Implementation Plans, Spreadsheets & The Craft Of Writing For Children

One of the toughest things I've tried to articulate to my non-writer friends about the writing process is the craft required to ensure that a children's story meets editorial guidelines.

Or maybe they just don't get it because it doesn't sound very creative.. it sounds like a trade... maybe like laying the story out brick by brick, or panelbeating what's already there? LOL!

I think the "romantic" view we have of the writing process is that the writer creates character profiles, researches the topic, plots the story and writes. Some writers plan their characters in great detail, others fly by the seat of their pants, but that's a post for another day.

Anyhoo, I am fortunate enough to sometimes write to order... to be asked by clients/publishers to submit stories for consideration and generally, there are very specific requirements I must meet. And my work still gets rejected. Too frequently for my liking:)

The requests usually come with editorial/submission requirements which include the target group, the type of story they want, maybe even the theme (s) they'd like to cover, the number of words for the whole story, the number of pages for the book and the number of words per page.

I'm also expected to provide a detailed artwork brief (image by image), so that the illustrator can visualise the kind of artwork I was thinking of to go with the story. And oh yes, the proportion of text to images in the children's story is pre-determined by the publisher too. The publisher is generally guided by the target group's reading need, series requirements, among other criteria.

There goes our romantic image of the story flowing from the creative writer's imagination to the page, right?

Not quite. When I write a story, I do start with that free-flowing process where I research a topic/theme, develop the characters, plot the story and then just put the words down as they come. That's the inspired portion of my writing process and at this stage I'm not too worried about the pacing of the story (i.e. whether I talk too much in one page and too scanty in detail in another page). That comes later.

Once the story is written and edited until it reads coherently, I sit down with a copy of the manuscript and the editorial guidelines from my editor (s) and  panel-beat the story, with specfic focus to the page by page pacing and to fit the publisher's requirements.

THAT, to me, is one of the most challenging aspects of the craft of writing for children. It's where your skill as a writing professional shines. It takes you beyond talent, to paying attention to the finer details of your story.

And lest you be tempted to think your  story can shine on the merits of its plot, characterisation and storytelling technique only, let me point out that some editors/publishers have no patience with writers who can't/won't follow instruction and if you want this editor/publisher to give you more work AND tell other editors about you, best you present yourself as a writer who combines talent, skill and craftsmanship and respect of guidelines and the editor's time.

I also found out, on reading up on the subject, that many famous writers didn't achieve their success  through sheer talent only - some of them took planning to incredible levels. And it paid off for them. I expect the level of their planning depended on the complexity of their stories (stories for very young children require less detail than adult novels) and author preferences.

Anyhoo, today my worktable is cluttered with draft manuscripts and reams of editorial guidelines. The objective is to panelbeat one or two children's stories to meet specific guidelines, so I can send them out for consideration.

It's hard work to cut a story in one page and add more text in another page without losing the original flow of the story or padding a paragraph with meaningless words!

However, I also find the process of working with guidelines comforting. Maybe it's the old journo in me, familiar with writing to order?

The guidelines also tell me what the publisher wants and how they want the information to be presented. There is no need for guesswork on my part. It's all nice and clear.

Seeking clarity

Speaking of clarity, today I also developed a project implementation plan for a client and I also found that process comforting.

My client and I were wandering into "slippery scope territory," and writing up the plan, with its milestones, deliverables and deadlines sort of clarified things that were mine to worry about and those that were the sole province of the client.

Those activities may impact on my part of the project, even my ability to do my job, but in the final analysis, they're not part of my job. The business owner in me asked,"is this an additional assignment for me? Do you have a budget for these tasks."

Because really, I wouldn't mind getting paid for them too, as they fit very well with what I'm already doing. So yeah... implementation plans and editorial guidelines and spreadsheets? They're becoming new best friends.

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