Saturday 22 December 2012

12th Day of Christmas: Senior Commissioning Editor Beverley Birch

Wonderful Words of Wisdom from
Editor Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch is friend and mentor to many slushpilers and published authors alike. Beverley is a senior commissioning editor for Hodder Children's Books and three times shortlisted for the Brandford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent.  She is a writer of more than 40 books including novels, picture books, biographies and retellings of classic works. Her novel, 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a true storyteller when you read the very first page. 2013 will see her stepping down from her commissioning role at Hodder  to concentrate on her author life and mentoring new writers. She will be joining Imogen Cooper's Golden Egg Academy, to help run workshops and provide creative support for promising writers. Follow Golden Egg Workshops for Children's Writers on Facebook.

On the 1st day and 2nd day of Christmas the Slushpile gave to me:

A jolt of PANIC.

And two pangs of GUILT.

 So much writing in my submissions tray - so much dedication, so many writers hoping, so little time to look at it. So many still waiting for responses, so many times I would have to say No ... and not because the writing was bad.

On the 3rd day of Christmas the Slushpile gave to me 3 QUESTIONS.

Why do so many want to write for children?

Why do children’s writers keep going - against a competitive avalanche, bleak commercial climate, awful money?

And why are children’s editors such a passionately committed breed that they keep going looking for special books, in spite of all …?

In fact, What’s so special about writing for children?

Photo: Teri Terry (the dog's name is Hellboy)

On the 4th day I woke with 4 ANSWERS:

Children’s writers and editors know that books:

  • Open doors – allow youngsters to see possibilities beyond their own backyard, to dream, imagine, participate in other lives, hopes, fears, choices, mistakes …
  • Give them a tantalising sense of the variety and complexity of life, enlarging vision and expanding horizons.
  • Enable them to explore motivation, action and consequence, encouraging reflection.
  • Foster a sense of self, In relation to the world and to others, and help make sense of highs and lows in their own lives.
With thanks to Juliet Clare Bell for the loan of children

On the 5th day the Slushpile gave to me 5 INSIGHTS:

Good children’s writers ...

  • Don’t preach – understand the power of story to change minds, bring insight
  • Keep story at the heart of their books
  • Have an unerring sense of audience
  • Make the reader simply want to read another
  • Don’t stop at one or two drafts – they know how hard it is to keep young readers interested – such fierce critics they are, so quick to vote with their feet – if you lose them on the first or second page, you just won’t get them back …

On the 6th day of Christmas the Slushpile gave to me – 6 (Panicky) THOUGHTS on all the other things a writer has to do beyond writing, to help get stories to their audience, but which sucks up precious time needed for writing.

Have you:
Post-op Vanessa Harbour
writes through the pain
  • Kept your family sweet so they let you keep this bizarre obsession called ‘writing my book’. Social media: when you’ve tweeted, updated facebook, blogged, posted something on your website, answered your emails, written your thankyous to anyone who has supported you (because we’re a friendly, mutually supportive lot) is there actually any time left to write?
  • Done what you can to reciprocate – how much we gain from and owe to that network of knowledge, mutual help, and warmth, so it can’t be left on the back burner. 
  • Stopped yourself tidying the socks drawer, or feeding the birds, or spending a couple of hours reading what everyone else is getting up to …. Or mending the roof with gutter tape, digging the toothbrush out of the drain (both true), or being trapped in waiting in for someone else’s parcel, because you’re not really doing anything important, only writing …
  • Met your audience – oh, they can be a fearsome and terrifyingly knowledgeable lot! And all that essential research and checking of facts for that book, that timeline or map you have to make so you don’t tie yourself in a knot, but which, once made, you never look at again ...

On the 7th day of Christmas I banished panic and the Slushpile gave me some CALMER REFLECTIONS – you couldn’t get more universal or grand themes than you find in children’s books – so here are just seven of them.

  1. Choice for good or bad
  2. Love, friendship/ loyalty/betrayal
  3. Guilt/redemption, power, obsession, corruption
  4. Loss
  5. Forces that shape what we are, what we become
  6. Our place in past and future and our responsibility for that
  7. Our relationship with forces of nature

On the 8th  9th  10th and 11th days of Christmas I meant to enjoy my writing life, but had no thoughts, insights, no inspiration whatsoever, and spent a long time tidying the stationary, sorting the pens, labelling the files …. and hoped, hoped, hoped, that maybe some kind of coherence would materialise …. Well, something did – because …

Clockwise from top left: Jo Franklyn, Chitra Soundar, Maureen Lynas, Jane Clarke

On the 12th day of Christmas the Slushpile united my editor and my writer self and gave me these WORDS OF WISDOM for all new writers – and myself:

  1. Write the story that’s in you – don’t write for the market – it’s a fickle thing, and before you’ve finished, it will have changed. Stories written with conviction and passion are the ones that stand the test of time.
  2. Find the voice of the novel, lively, truthful and apt, one that connects the reader to the story like an umbilical cord.
  3. Read widely – constantly renew your sense of the best writing out there, the infinite range of possibilities in style, in plots and ideas. Imbibe the skills first through being a reader.
  4. Find the core of your story – it’s thematic centre so that everything in the writing shapes itself to drive that story forward. If you’re not clear about this, there will be a muddiness about it that your reader will feel ...
  5. Find what’s special about what you want to write, and shape the story so that specialness is visible from the outset to entice readers in.
  6. Make your characters drive the story, no puppets manipulated by an ever present all-seeing author.
  7. Make them live and breathe on the page, get into their heads, see it from their view.
  8. Make them talk the way they would to each other, not like YOU would.
  9. Delight in language, its range and colour and rhythms.
  10. Read your stuff aloud to yourself – no better way to identify stumbling in the language, or a pedestrian rhythm, or repeated ideas, let alone phrases.
  11. Put it aside when it’s finished, and leave lots of time. Then read it as a reader. You will instantly see that it’s not yet finished ….
  12. Most of all, have fun. There’s a much better chance your readers will!

Helen Peters stealing writing time at the SCBWI retreat.


  1. Wonderful words from Beverley. So wise, so patient, so true. Apt reminder of what its all about. Merry Christmas, Beverley and good luck with your new venture and future books.

  2. Thanks slushpilers. Have a lovely holiday and heres to new horizons in the new year. Good luck and happy writing.

  3. Every time I hear Beverley speak I find I am nodding my head and listening with wide eyes, and every time she finishes I feel like I've been in the warmest group hug. Beverley Birch you are Patron Saint of The Slushpiler. Thanks you - I think your move to Golden Egg is one of the very best things that could happen to children's fiction.

  4. My thanks, too, Beverley. You're an inspiration as always. Very best of luck with all your new projects.

  5. What a wonderful post, and, in the early stages of a new manuscript, this has given me lots of food for thought. Thank you.

  6. Splendid, inspiring article. Thank you Beverley.

  7. Wonderful post, and so true! (I wonder how many of were actually writing when the pics were taken!) Happy Christmas everybody!!

    1. Helen was REALLY writing. She didn't realize I'd taken that photo!

    2. I was definitely posing Jackie! But I think you can tell. The book I'm holding is one of my favourite Ahlberg books called Tell Us a Story Dad, it's always on my desk as my reminder to 'keep it simple'.
      Thank you so much Beverley, your post seems to sum up the whole experience of being a children's writer.

  8. Great post, Beverley - and I love that last picture of Helen Peters sitting and writing beneath the trees - it puts everything into perspective. Merry Christmas everyone.

  9. Massive thanks to you, Beverley! How brilliant that you'll continue to inspire and help the slushpilers.

  10. What a brilliant post, Beverley - as ever, you bring wisdom and insight to the writer's life! Thank you!

  11. Thanks all for lovely comments. I love those pictures! I am sure 2013 will bring good writing things for you all, and I have my fingers and toes firmly crossed on your behalf. Have a great Christmas, and see you all, somewhere, in the New Year. love from Beverley

  12. Thank you for a great post, lots of food for thought! Merry Christmas Beverley.

  13. What a brilliant post - I love the writer and editor selves getting together at the end!

  14. Great post and great photos of writers at work! I'm not writing much, so no pictures of me at the keyboard - have to change that in 2013! Thanks for a great series of posts! Colleen

  15. Great post, Beverley, and so true. I'm still stuck somewhere on the 6th day! Eek! Wondering if my family will notice if I skip Christmas !
    X Sarah


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