In August 2012 (having spotted the competition on the Writers Workshop website) Pip Jones won the inaugural Greenhouse Funny Prize, with her series of children’s stories about an imaginary kitten called Squishy McFluff. Two months later, she was offered a four-book deal with Faber & Faber. The first book, Squishy McFluff: The Invisible Cat! launched in early February.
Have you always wanted to write? And if so, did you always know you would write in rhyme and for kids?
Yes, I always wanted to write. From the age of six or so, I used to spend my weekends writing stories. They did often rhyme actually. My mum sent me something the other day that she’d found – a rhyming story about a spider called Harry, which I must have written when I was about eight. The scansion needed a bit of work, but not that much! An old schoolfriend reminded me not long ago that I’d told her I wanted to be a children’s author when I was nine. So I always wanted to, but my career swung in a journalistic and editing direction. When I had my two children, I sort of remembered that writing was what I had really wanted to do and so it’s wonderful that I’ve been able to realise an ambition I held for so long. As for the Squishy stories, looking back it feels like they happened more organically than as a result of me ‘deciding’ to write a rhyming story for children. When I began to write, the rhyme just emerged. It must have been sitting there, latent in my mind, all that time!
What books inspired you as a youngster?
So many. I adored reading. I remember when I was very young being addicted to Enid Blyton – you know, The Wishing Chair, The Magic Faraway Tree and so on. I also loved Roald Dahl – who didn’t? I read everything of his. And I remember loving the stories about a girl called Arabel and her raven Mortimer, by Joak Aitken.
What books do you love reading your young ones now?
My elder daughter has just started reading, so while she’s learning the technical aspects with very simple books, I’m also reading much longer chapter books to her, to hopefully get her hooked on literature! We’ve read The Wishing Chair and The Twits. We’re just starting on The Worst Witch. In terms of picture books, we have always loved Julia ‘Queen Of Rhyme’ Donaldson and also Oliver Jeffers. I really like slightly surreal books. Two of my favourites (and they are just so beautiful) are The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Eric by Shaun Tan.
Do you particularly love reading funny stuff?
Yes of course! Humour is really what makes children’s literature completely joyous. The Mr Gum series by Andy Stanton makes me cry with laughter (I read them in public and don’t care what people think of my snorts and guffaws). They’re absolute genius. I Am Not A Loser (and the series) by Jim Smith is also brilliant.
Are you actually funny in real life or only on a page?
That question made me laugh! Oh, yes. I am extremely funny. Ask anyone. You did mean ‘funny ha-ha’ right?
What has surprised you most about the publishing process?
I guess it’s all a bit surprising really, because it’s all new. Getting from ‘book deal’ to ‘book on shelf’ is a slow process (especially if your book will be illustrated) but I understood that it would be by the time I had the deal, so I just had to temper my eagerness! I was used to magazine and newspaper ways of working, where deadlines come up fast and production happens quickly, but conversely, when making a book, there can be long periods where nothing much is required of you, so you have to sit it out until the next exciting part comes along. I think I was also surprised at how little, um, interference there was in terms of the stories. The first big edit (when I actually had to double the length of the original manuscript, which felt a bit daunting) was not at all prescriptive or specific in terms of how to make the changes. The advice was absolutely brilliant, but gentle, and I was allowed to change the story as I saw fit.
What part could you most live without?
I can honestly say there isn’t a single part of it I haven’t enjoyed. I think, when I began working with Faber, I assumed I would find it difficult to be edited but I didn’t at all. There were times when a suggestion was made, and my initial reaction was a sharp intake of breath (thinking ‘how can I change THAT bit?!’), but in every instance, when I sat and thought about it, I could see that there was indeed a way to make it better and I was so grateful for that. I have a brilliant editorial team and that must be what has made it enjoyable. Even towards the end of producing the first book, when we were picking over single words, and discussing whether they were the right words, the perfect words, I didn’t feel frustrated.
What’s the hardest bit about writing your stories? Is it coming up with an idea in the first place? Or the execution?
I think the hardest part is probably coming up with the big gags that the story hangs off. That’s the first part of the process, thinking ‘what naughty, crazy things are these two little characters going to do this time?’. The gags have to be fitting. You see, Ava and Squishy are naughty – but not maliciously so. Their motives are actually very childlike and sweet, and I hope that is something which will strike a chord with parents. The execution is easier for me I think. If you asked me to describe how to write verse that scans perfectly, I’d find it difficult. But I think once you get into a rhythm, there’s something almost mathematical about it, in the same way that there is something mathematical about the rhythm of music. I do go a bit insane with it, though. When I start writing a Squishy story, I have to do it quickly (it’ll take me about four days to get the first draft down) because the rhyming in my head doesn’t go away until the story is done. I become obsessive, and I’ll be writing it in my sleep, or I’ll have to rush out of a room mid-conversation because a perfect couplet has just popped into my head and I have to type it out before it’s gone again. Even my normal inner thoughts, about doing the washing up, or cooking dinner, start rhyming. As soon as the story is officially finished, that all calms down, and I can spend some time tweaking and perfecting.
What skill would you most like to learn?
I think a very important thing to learn, to make yourself do, is plot well. I’ve written the Squishy books in various different ways – the second book, I wrote the first four lines, and continued from there without knowing what was going to happen at all. It can be tempting to write like that, because you want to get straight to the creative part. But if you intricately work out the plot beforehand, if you put in the work with the more technical side of story writing, you can then add all the colour and depth and humour feeling confident that you’ll get from A to C, via B, and it’ll all come together without you losing focus. Having said that, sometimes I do still do it the haphazard way and wait to see what happens!
Do you (be honest) secretly have an Important Novel inside you? Or even a book aimed at more grown-up kids?
I honestly don’t have a novel bubbling away, no. Maybe one day, but right now I remain completely in awe of authors who can pull together so many words, so perfectly and so beautifully. I would like to write books for slightly older children though. I have the seed of an idea for some chapter books. Perhaps my writing will just stay in line with my children’s reading levels!
Have you started reading differently now that you’re a pro?
I think I probably do read things a bit differently now actually, yes. Maybe I read some books with a more technical eye, having gone through that technical process with my own stories. It doesn’t make reading any less enjoyable though and I still absolutely love it when I pick up a perfectly punchy rhyming book.
One wish for 2014?
Gosh. Well, we have come such a long way and I don’t half love that invisible kitten, so I guess my big wish is that Squishy McFluff finds his place in the hearts of children. I also secretly hope that grown-ups love him too, and they enjoy the aspects of the stories which have been put there just for them!
One word of advice from Squishy?
I’d love to share what would undoubtedly be outrageously naughty ‘advice’, but grown ups can neither see, not hear, Squishy McFluff. So I can’t.
Tips for writing for young children
1 You don’t have to be an illustrator yourself to write a wonderful picture book (and if you’re not an artist, don’t even attempt it) – but if you’re writing a picture book, it can be quite important to leave some space for the pictures do the talking. Not everything needs to be said with words. Some of the biggest jokes might be much better conveyed visually – so when you write, try to ‘see’ the story too. Make bracketed notes on your manuscript where something might be conveyed by an image.
2 Let your imagination roam free. Some of the best children’s books are bonkers and nonsensical. Even if you write a picture book which is more real world-y, there’s no better place for a bit of creative licence.
3 If you think you can write superb rhyme, then do. But not everyone can – and if you can’t, that doesn’t make you a bad children’s writer, it might just make you a non-rhyming children’s writer. A major litmus test for writing brilliant rhyme is that it would never even occur to you to sacrifice sense for the sake of achieving a rhyme. Not ever. A seemingly random idea which has made its way into a story simply because it will rhyme with the next line will stick out like a sore thumb. If you want to test out your own scansion, read 10 rhyming picture books, one after the other – then pick up your manuscript and read it aloud. Having the sing-song of other people’s perfect rhyme in your head might help you pinpoint scansion stumblers in your own.
4 Try to remember what it felt like to be little. What were your motives for doing, well, anything?! What made you laugh? What made you worry? Spend time with the little people in your life and write for them in a voice you think will really speak to them. Sometimes it is better to shut out all your own adult life experiences.
5 If you love writing, keep writing. Everyone gets better. I know I’ve got better with practice. And don’t grind to a halt after your first rejection. Yes, officially, there are two ends of the scale – there is ‘good’ and there is ‘bad’ – but there is such a massive grey area in between. Like art, stories and books are subjective. What one person dislikes might be loved by the next person (and by person, I mean, in the first instance, agent/publisher). If you love what you have done, don’t give up on it until you have sent it to everyone. If everyone says no, bank it, maybe come back to it again later, but keep writing. Move on. Try again. You won’t mind – because you love writing.
Pip’s second book in the Squishy McFluff series will be out on August 7th.