Friday, March 31, 2017

Meet Melinda and her Gang of Writers

Ever read a book written by cuddly toy characters? Meet Melinda Kinsman, and the Top of the Wardrobe Gang who write and illustrate their own books.

Title: The Bear Cub and the Ducklings
Story & Illustration: Melinda Kinsman
Genre: Picture Book, Beginner Readers
Molly, the mouse and her best friend, Cyril the squirrel, are waiting for baby ducklings to be born on the farm near to their homes. Molly always wants to help others, but what happens when she and Cyril decide to defend the duck eggs from a gang of weasels?
I read The Bear Cub and the Ducklings by the Top of the Wardrobe Gang last summer with my then 4 year old nephew little Chrys. He absolutely loved the book for it's lovely story and the adorable illustrations. The book could help teach him animals and their young ones, and also the value of empathy and helpfulness.

When I read more about the author Melinda and her gang of writers, I was all the more interested in their story and wanted to share it over here. Read on as she narrates the story in her own words.

1. Hi Melinda ! It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on my blog today. 

I have read the story of how you started writing books and found it very inspiring. Can you share it in a nutshell?

Thanks for inviting me here, Priya.

Although I may seem very active, because I rock climb and hill walk when I can, the truth is that I have to spend a lot of every day lying on my side. I have problems with my neck, which are easily aggravated by trying to sit or stand to work at a desk, and which don't allow me to do quite a few normal things.

So I started writing and illustrating children's books because I found it was something I could do from home while lying on my side using an iPad. I was a scientist who worked in a lab before my neck issues. I studied maths and sciences, and I gave up both English language and art lessons as soon as I could. I like to think I'm proof that we can do whatever we put our minds to if we try hard enough.

2. I was actually surprised when you told me that your illustrations were created using an iPad. What are the pros and cons about illustrating on an iPad?

With the newest model of iPad Pro (which I don't have), illustrating on an iPad is likely to become much more common, especially for illustrators while they are "on the go". The device itself is more than capable of creating illustrations, even though I'm yet to find a way not to involve a laptop/PC at some point in the publishing process.

My own biggest challenge is really that I use the iPad balanced in my left hand while lying on my left side. My original heavier iPad was trickier, and I often had to use my right knee balanced up in the air in order to hold the iPad steady. I now have a lighter iPad Air, which my left hand can mainly hold steady on its own. The drawing app that I use allows me to drag points on lines, and to apply smoothing. This helps with the limited drawing accuracy due to me using an older type of iPad, and the iPad wobbling about a bit in my hand!

I can't really compare using an iPad drawing app to any other method of illustrating, as I've learned from scratch using this method only.

The Top of the Wardrobe Gang series of books are credited to both Melinda and a motley crew of cuddly toy characters. This bunch of cuddly toys live on the Top of the Wardrobe - they like to call this the "penthouse suite"! They enjoy reading, and want to try writing their own books. Most of the cartoon gang characters are based on "real" members of Melinda's cuddly toy family, though some have had to have their names and appearances changed to allow their inclusion! 😄

3. Now Melinda, could you introduce the Top of the Wardrobe Gang to the readers who are yet to read your books?

The Gang are a mixed bunch of characters, as my intention was always to show kids that everyone can work together as a team and contribute, whatever their differences or abilities.

Oscar Rabbit is the slightly bossy guy who says he is "in charge". He moans a lot, but he loves the others more than he likes to admit. Burton Bear is the wiser, calmer member of the team. He does the writing, and everyone goes to him if they need advice, or if they are upset about anything. P.D.Monkey is mischievous and adventurous. He draws the pictures. Terry Tiger is the most energetic
one. He colours in the smaller parts on the pictures.

Odd Sock is the only girl. She tries to be kind and thoughtful, and always wants everyone else to be happy. She hasn't much skill with a paintbrush, so she colours in the bigger backgrounds in the pictures. And Buster Dog is a pillow animal with very short legs. Just like other "real" dogs, he loves waiting for the post man. So he helps by dealing with all the Gang's mail.

Odd Sock is the only girl in the Top of the Wardrobe Gang.
4. I find your gang of toy writers very interesting - a bunch of cuddly toys who like to write and
illustrate books for children. 😊

How did you get the idea of creating these characters modelled on the toys?

Although the Gang are supposed to live on top of their young owner's wardrobe, their name came from the fact that all my own old cuddly toys moved onto the top of the wardrobe in our spare bedroom when I got married to my husband. When my neck problems began, and my pain levels rocketed, a few of them, including the real Oscar Rabbit, began making their way back down again to sit beside my bed. Over the years, as I lost my job and found myself at home facing a life with ongoing pain levels that I had never imagined, these loyal toys made their way downstairs to
sit next to me on the sofa that I now lie writing to you from.

So it was never really that far from reality to have this Gang of toys helping me to write books. The truth is that they sit next to me as I write and illustrate, and they are more involved in my book creation process than any humans are. The one toy who did not originally live here was Odd Sock. She existed only as a drawing, until I eventually made her out of fabric!

5. All your books are written in rhyming verse. Do you think that children’s picture books have to rhyme? Which would you say is more important in a children’s picture book - rhyme or rhythm?

Many great children's picture books don't rhyme. In fact, I read so many articles about why publishers hate receiving rhyming submissions, and why authors SHOULDN'T try to write in rhyme, that I nearly didn't even try self-publishing rhyming picture books.

Once you do decide to write in rhyme, I think that the rhyme and rhythm of your words are both equally important. I had never heard of the word "meter" before learning about the craft of rhyming picture books. It is the rhythm of your lines that defines the main "meter" of the piece, and, when writing rhyme for young children, writers try to keep this constant - to give children and adult readers a predictable pattern.

As I come from the UK, but mainly sell via Amazon to American readers, one of my ongoing challenges is finding rhymes and rhythms that work for different national and regional accents and speech patterns. As well as using US rhyming dictionaries, I'm lucky enough to have US author friends who help me with this.

Odd Sock posing with a copy of Monster Poems
6. Your books are available in both British English and American English. What was it that made you decide to offer that option?

When writing for young children who are starting to learn to read, I think it's important for them to see terms and spellings that are correct for the version of English that they are learning. Parents from the UK have confirmed this with me, while author friends from the US soon had me realising that some American parents don't even realise these differences exist. I apologise now to any US readers who are reading this blog post and thinking that I don't know how to spell correctly. I have reverted to my native British spellings! 😊

7. How has your self publishing journey been?

My decision to self publish was made after reading accounts written by children's authors who spent all their time writing letters to publishers, and accounts by publishers about how may gazillion people they had trying to submit children's book manuscripts to them (nearly all of which had to be rejected). I was simply trying to find a way to earn a small wage from home, given my limited circumstances. I did not want to waste time or money posting hundreds of manuscripts off to traditional publishers.

I was lucky enough early on in my journey to come across other like minded children's authors. Over the years we have learnt together, and we have shared the ups and downs of our experiences. I feel these are my work colleagues, and that my office is truly a multinational one, which the World Wide Web makes possible.

I decided early on that I would try to do everything myself for financial reasons. This led to me learning to illustrate and learning to format my own books for both eBook and print book editions. I would now hate to have this any other way, as it puts me in full control of my final books, and allows me to publish on a far faster timescale than traditional publishing can possibly achieve.

As well as my elderly linguist father offering me his own editing and proofreading services, I found other self-publishing authors who were willing to help out. I also learned how valuable it was to find "critique" groups in order to get constructive criticism from other authors on my draft manuscripts. I think having a team's input, even if they aren't paid, is vital in trying to produce a book of the highest standard that you can.

I also do my own marketing, but this is a field I continue to experiment with. There are so many different marketing things authors are told they "should" be doing, that it is easy to find yourself with no time left to actually produce more books. My only current answer to this is to be quite ruthless in making my choices. If one marketing method doesn't seem to be producing results then I try to move on.

8. Do you think the advancements in technology related to the publishing industry such as e-books, and illustration apps offer more independence in self publishing options?

Most definitely. I think the role of traditional publishing is changing dramatically. Only a few years ago, keen readers would own shelves full of print books. Now most will own one or more e-reader device, and they will no longer buy as many paperbacks. As tablets designed for younger readers started to come onto the market, more people also began to buy eBook editions of picture books for young children.

I find I sell far more e-book versions of my picture books than print books. I still love it when a parent tells me how their child enjoyed my book, and then insisted that they buy a version with "real pages" though. I think young children do enjoy the tactile experience of owning and caring for "real books", and I hope that parents will continue to buy them dearer paper copies of their favourite books.

As far as illustration apps go, when I started illustrating that way I felt at a distinct disadvantage compared to an artist who could just draw and paint their own illustrations onto paper. As the apps improved, though, I think more and more professional illustrators have seen them as a real alternative that they need to investigate.

9. What do you think about your writing journey so far? What were the challenges you had to face and how did you overcome them?

My writing journey as a whole has already introduced me, via the web, to many great people, many of whom I am now lucky enough to call my friends.

In the early days, learning how to illustrate on my side while balancing an iPad with my knee seemed the biggest challenge. I guess I overcame that with tenacity, many hours of trying, and the eventual change over to using a lighter iPad.

Rather bizarrely, one of my biggest challenges nowadays is lying down TOO MUCH each day, and no longer being active enough!

I originally only did book-related activities when I had to lie down. Although my illustration techniques have improved, and my writing / editing and formatting methods have all improved, the overall process (including marketing) only ever seems to take me longer and longer. I try to produce new books regularly, and there is always something new that I need to try to learn about...

Being unable to work at any type of desk now leaves me lying down for longer and longer time periods, in order to work from my iPad. I think maybe the trick to overcoming this new challenge will eventually be for me to admit that I am only human, and to set myself less demanding targets!

10. What would you like to tell aspiring writers of children’s books?

I think the most important thing that I would want to ask aspiring children's authors is,"why do you want to write for children?"

Over the last few years, I've talked to many different authors, and I've come to realise that their reasons for wanting to write for children are very varied. What the next best step is for an aspiring author really depends on how they answer that question.

If you think it would be fun, want to see your books in print, and just want to do it as a hobby, then set yourself a financial budget and look seriously into self publishing (hiring illustrators if you need to).

If you really want the "kudos" and recognition behind getting a traditional publishing contract, then that is clearly where your time and money should be invested.

If you just want to earn money, then ask yourself again if you think you only want to write for children. If not, consider choosing one of the bigger, more lucrative adult markets, such as Romance. (Also consider seriously whether you could manage a part time job at a local supermarket instead, as the income would be more reliable, and probably more substantial!) If, like me, you want to earn a small income, but can only envisage writing for kids (and have no chance of a part time job at a local supermarket!), then try to follow the self-publishing path and see where it takes you.

Melinda Kinsman lives near Chester, in North West England. She loves her family, reading books, visiting different places around the world, and climbing mountains. You can learn more about her from her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
[All photographs courtesy: Melinda Kinsman. The copy of The Bear Cub and The Ducklings was obtained personally and not provided by the author.]

Did you find Melinda's story inspiring? What did you think about her gang of toy writers? Let me know in the comments!