Do Picture Book Writing Courses Work? Pippa Goodhart interviews Catherine Emmett

I have been teaching day schools and online courses about picture book writing for some years now, and one of the joys of that teaching is when somebody comes onto the course who takes every idea and suggestion offered, and runs with it. Catherine did my four week course run though Jericho Writers, and also had critiques of manuscripts done via them. But now she's producing glorious texts, supported by her own critiquing group, achieving publication and being paired with absolutely top illustrators. I'm mighty proud of her, and delighted to ask her some questions for Picture Book Den -

Catherine, have you always been a stories sort of person?

When I was little, my dad used to make up bedtime stories for me and my sister.  I loved those stories and can still remember all of his characters.  There was a sort of magic to him weaving those stories out of thin air.  I loved writing, but my real love was always reading.  I read books about everything, but mostly horses.  I loved the feeling of opening up a book by a favourite author and knowing that you had a whole new story to read. I still get that same feeling now when one of my favourite authors writes a new book!  The longer the better - I’ve never really liked short stories as they finish too soon!

Do you think that story writing can be taught, or is it innate, and you either have the skill or you don’t?

I think that WANTING to write is perhaps innate.  I think that some people seem to spend more time in their own heads than others, and that, for me, is what makes a writer.  The characters that form in the quiet moments, the ideas that appear at unexpected times and refuse to go away!  I started writing because I constantly had ideas in the twilight of my mind and the only way to get them out was to write them down.   

I think a lot of the rest can perhaps be taught.  For me certainly I spent a LOT of time learning to write in rhyme.  It took a lot of time to understand the concepts and more time again to be able to THINK in rhyme, but now I would say it was one of my strengths.   I think that a lot of story structure can certainly be learnt, but that it is those ‘twilgiht ideas’ that can make a story magic.

What sorts of working with others do you find most helpful in the picture book writing process?

All kinds to be honest!  When I first started writing I had friends and family read the stories - in the words of my then 6-year old niece, ‘Keep trying Aunty Catherine, I’m sure you’ll get better.’!  

After that my husband purchased me a place on a picture book writing course as a Christmas present.  The course was brilliant at helping me to think about what is really important to children, and about teaching the magic of picture books - the power of ‘the page turn’!  I also found having a professional critique was incredibly valuable.  Having really honest feedback from someone more experienced really shows the issues with your story.

Once I’d completed the course, I joined SCBWI and started a critique group.  The group has been brilliant as it is so much easier to see what is working or not working in other people’s stories – and for them to see it in yours. 

Since then I have been lucky enough to work with my agent, Alice Sutherland-Hawes who has a great commercial eye for where a story needs to be improved.  And of course, with my brilliant editors at S&S, who always seem to find a way to make a story better!

But of course, the very best part of being a picture book writer is working with your illustrator and watching them bring your story to life!  That for me really is the magic!  Ben Mantle has done such a fabulous job with ‘King of the Swamp’ – the first time I saw his illustrations I couldn’t stop smiling!

What comes next for Catherine Emmett the writer? 

After ‘King of the Swamp‘, my second book will be out in Spring 2021.  It is another rhyming picture book, but it is very different!  ‘Cautionary Tales for Parents and Children: The Pet’ is out with Macmillan and is illustrated by David Tazzyman.  It explores what happens when a very spoilt boy doesn’t look after his pets!  More books are coming after that, but nothing that I can talk about yet!  I am now however, obliged to write lots more as, after years of writing on the sofa, I am I the process of building a house with a brand sparkling new writing room!  I can’t wait to start writing in it!

PIPPA: As somebody else who has been lucky enough to build their own home, and to go from writing in odd corners around busily family life to having a proper work room, I promise you it'll be strange but wonderful, Catherine!

And here is Catherine's upcoming first picture book, looking magnificent! CONGRATULATIONS, Catherine! Publication date is on August 20th, so SOON!  

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