Interview with WriteMentor Picture Book Award winner Stephen James

How did you feel when you watched the winner announcement?

Shocked! And very, very happy! Obviously I wanted to win, but I didn’t really believe that I would so it was a huge shock. I’m still shocked.

How did you celebrate?

My partner and I had a little dance around the lounge and shared a beer. A whole can of beer between the two of us. We know how to party!

Tell us a bit about your writing journey to date.

I had a few picture book ideas when I was young but I never did anything with them. When my daughter was born 5 years ago I had a flood of picture book ideas. I had no idea whatsoever how stories worked but I started writing them down anyway. Since then, I’ve read lots of books on how to write and last year I did course after course after course to improve my craft. I was also lucky last year to be chosen as a mentee by Catherine Emmett for the Write Mentor summer programme and I learnt absolutely loads from her.

Tell us more about the winning book, ‘Captain Tangle’.

Captain Tangle is a story that originally came to me over 15 years ago but I didn’t start working on it until about 4 years ago. Since then, I’ve tried to write it numerous times but I just couldn’t get it to work. Each attempt was written in rhyme so it was a very time consuming and frustrating process – I’d work on it, get stuck and then shelve it. It wasn’t until I’d done a lot of learning about how stories work that I was able to actually finish it.

It’s the story of a boy (David) who has super hero parents but he’s born with a useless superpower – he tangles everything he touches. He isn’t really bothered by the chaos he’s causing until one day when his tangles prevent his parents from racing to the scene of a crime. The crooks (the Greasy Gang) get away and David is devastated. He decides that he’ll hide away in his room forever. But when his parents get trapped by the Greasy Gang, he bravely ventures out to save them. Could his tangles come in handy for once and teach him to accept himself?

What inspired the idea for ‘Captain Tangle’?

When I first got together with my partner, I gave her a head massage and basically turned her hair into a giant bird’s nest. The same thing happened whenever I gave her a head rub and she nicknamed me ‘Captain Tangle’. Making a mess is my super power!

What was the WriteMentor Picture Book Award experience like for you, as an entrant?

It’s such a great competition because whatever happens you get some feedback. One of the texts I entered got a ‘No’ from all four readers but I still got some valuable insight into why they didn’t think it was any good. I’ve since revised that text and sent it out for another competition. It may still fail to hit the spot but it’s in better shape than it was because of the feedback from the WMCNA and you don’t get that from most competitions. Also, Stuart does a great job of trying to manage the expectations of the entrants and encourage us to look to the next project and forget about it – which I did. My aim before the competition was to get on the long list, as I’d never been long listed before, so to reach the short list was a shock and to win it was mind-boggling. After I’d won, I received SO many messages (most of them from complete strangers) congratulating me on Twitter. It was really lovely. The writing community is so kind and supportive. 

What do you plan to do with the prize money?

The laptop that I write on is over 10 years old and it’s starting to go a bit haywire so I think I’ll put the money towards a new one.

What advice would you give other writers when entering writing awards in the future?

To keep going. We all work incredibly hard on our texts and then send them out full of hope and then it’s bitterly disappointing when we don’t get chosen. Until this competition I’d never got anywhere in a competition so you never know what’s possible unless you keep putting your work out there.

After I’d won, I received SO many messages (most of them from complete strangers) congratulating me on Twitter. It was really lovely. The writing community is so kind and supportive.

Any general writing advice for writers of children’s fiction, particularly Picture Books?

1: Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! I find that I can get a bit serious about trying to ‘make it’ and then my writing journey starts to become stressful. Yes, we’re all trying to bag an agent and get a book on the shelves but chances are, you started your writing journey because you have some exciting ideas knocking around in your head and you enjoy writing them down. So mess about, experiment, be playful, have fun. Note to self: LISTEN TO THIS ADVICE!!!! 

2: Do courses. In 2020, I did courses back to back for the entire year. The WriteMentor picture book course with Clare Helen Welsh was brilliant. Not only is the course content great (and the course leader) but you spend the whole course critiquing each other’s work. I learnt so much from this process and I still have a monthly meeting on Slack with the (lovely) people I met on that course. We critique each other’s pitches/stories and support each other – it’s so helpful. I’ve done loads of courses with Amy Sparkes as well and she’s absolutely great. I’ve also made another excellent connection through one of Amy’s courses with someone who is now a valued critique partner.

3: Build a support network. In addition to the people I’ve met whilst doing the courses mentioned above, I’ve formed a good connection with my mentor from last year (Catherine Emmett) and a few of the other mentees from 2020 – some of whom have become regular critique partners. So I have a whole bunch of people who are willing to rip my texts to shreds at a moment’s notice! Seriously, I think that finding people to share the ups and downs of the road to publication with is essential. I’m just starting to explore the WriteMentor Community Learning Hub, which is superb. It’s packed with useful writing expertise and it provides loads of opportunities to make connections with other writers. Joining the SCBWI is another great way to make connections and find critique buddies. However you choose to build a support network, it’s an absolute must.

4: If you write in rhyme, try writing out your story in prose before you start to put it into verse. You may find that the story comes to you with rhymes and that’s absolutely great. When the wind is in your sails and rhymes are popping up left, right and centre, it’s essential that you run with it and get them on the page. I would never interfere with that initial spark of inspiration. Let it flow for as long as it keeps coming. However, there’s one particular text of mine that’s completely converted me from a pantser to a plotter. I think that the particular text I’m talking of is a really great idea. In fact, I absolutely love it…BUT I’ve written 4 completely separate drafts of it (and I mean completely separate) where I’ve taken the MC out, put a new MC in, changed the other supporting characters, changed the story etc, etc. And for every version, I’ve spent a colossal amount of time trying to craft beautiful verses and then canned them all. I’m about to have another crack at that text (I’ve had a long break from it) and before I do, I’m going to ask myself a whole bunch of questions. Who is the MC? What’s her goal? What’s her internal conflict? What’s her external conflict? What’s her simple emotional journey? What happens on each spread? Etc. And on top of this, I’m going to have a crack at writing a neat synopsis. Please see this website for loads of useful plug and play synopsis tools. 

Sometimes rhymes can be serendipitous and take stories in exciting directions. But often, they can run the show and if you haven’t really decided what you’re doing, then you end up with a story that doesn’t work. Crafting excellent verses takes a lot of time. A heck of a lot of time. Everyone has a different process, but for me the story itself is the absolute boss and I’m finding that if I put the hours in on getting the story right first then I get a better manuscript in the end. I also spend a lot less timing crying because I’ve had to murder my darling verses.

What’s next for your writing? Any new projects on the horizon?

As I mentioned above, I did lots of courses in 2020. My mission now is to apply all that learning to my texts. If I’m brutally honest, Captain Tangle is my only manuscript that’s at submission standard. So my aim for 2021 is to get six texts up to scratch by October. Three to send out to agents and three in reserve in case I get any interest and I’m asked to submit more material.

Twitter: @SJpicturebooks

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