Writing for Children by David Seow
2018 marks the 20th year of David Seow's career writing children’s picture books. His books have been called "a treasure" and "exciting and imaginative". This year also marks the release of his latest book, Sam, Sebbie and Di-di-di & Xandy: Storm Over Typhoon Theatre, the final book in the series, which was officially launched at the recent Singapore Writers Festival earlier this month.
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I first started writing to entertain my niece and my three nephews (whom I used as references for my characters, Sam, Sebbie, Di-di-di and Xandy). I used to babysit them almost every Friday or Saturday night and they would load me with their favourite storybooks to read at bedtime.
Ten books each, that’s 40 in total. As you can imagine, my throat was pretty hoarse by the time they fell asleep. It was at that point I decided to come up with my own stories about them.
Everyone thinks it is fun to write a children’s book. To be honest, so did I – after all, how hard can it be, right? I mean, after all, I still feel like I’m a kid. My mum always says I’m still living out my childhood. (Wait till I hit adolescence!)
Here’s the truth: YES, it can be fun ... BUT it’s also extremely challenging.
(David, second from right, with other children's book authors (from left) Maureen Yeo, Linda Locke and Swapnil Mishra, at the book launch @ Singapore Writers Festival)
Writing a children’s book is so much more than just having an idea and putting it down on paper. Having done 43 books, I think I can safely say that I’ve learned a thing or two. Here are some of the key lessons:
WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW
Writers are often advised to write about what they know. And I knew my niece and nephews pretty well – their likes, dislikes and everything else in between.
I decided to write about them, and that’s how the Sam, Sebbie, Di-Di-Di series came about. I wrote about the first day of school or a trip to the Night Safari.
My family suggested I approach a publisher that we knew and I was offered a contract for three books, then six, and finally 12. I published a total of 22 books with that publisher before we parted ways.
YOU NEED TO BUILD A RELATIONSHIP
With editors and publishers, that is. Like any relationship, the bond between writers, editors and publishers can be very tricky. Authors usually have a good relationship with their editors but it can be a love-hate situation with the publishers.
(David Seow's Sam, Sebbie and Di-di-di & Xandy series of children's picture books.)
I once had a publisher/editor who turned my active voice text into passive voice, she let the illustrator have a say in my text and ultimately the book was slammed by Publishers Weekly based on the changes the publisher/editor made. Can die, right?
The lesson I learnt was that while writers have to stand their ground, pick your battles wisely. If your gut instinct is telling you something – listen to it. Publishers should never change your voice as that is the one thing that sets your writing apart from everyone else.
Thankfully, I have a publisher, Edmund Wee of Epigram Books, and my editors, Sheri and Wai Mun, who have allowed my “voice” to come through in my books.
(Of course, there are times when we don't see eye to eye and I feel like strangling- ... but that’s another story for another time!)
YOU LEARN A LOT WHEN YOU SELF-PUBLISH
Not just self-learning, but learning about the industry. You have to source your own printer, illustrator, distributor and you have to cultivate relationships with the bookstores and schools and basically do your own marketing.
It's hard work, but there are authors who have been successful with self-publishing, including the multiple award-winning Emily Lim, who wrote Prince Bear & Pauper Bear and Tibby the Tiger Bunny, and has sold scores of her books overseas. Others who have done so include Sarah Mounsey, Eliza Teoh, Hidayah Amin and Leila Boukarim Haig Ghokassian.
My self-published books have been nominated for awards: There’s Soup on My Fly and Emma’s Elephant have been dramatised; while Blow A Kiss was mentioned in various international publications, after having been presented to HRH the Duchess of Cambridge.
YOU HAVE TO SELL THE STORIES
Someone in the industry once told me that it’s hard to market me because I’m a guy writing kids books and it’s easier to market female writers. That’s a tad sexist, isn’t it? I should start my own tag #MaleKidsAuthorsRule!
But seriously, it’s tough to market picture books in such a small country like Singapore. As an author, you have to do your part to sell your book. Start your own Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts to promote your books and yourself. Set up a blog.
(David did whatever it took to get word of his books out. He sent review copies to Alisyn Camerota and David Briggs at Fox; and gave books to Mamma Mia! star Amanda Seyfried and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He even had copies delivered to the British royal family – here, Prince Charles' wife Camilla Parker Bowles wrote to David about wanting to introduce the young royals to his book, Sam, Sebbie and Di-di-di: The Lion Dance)
By doing that, I was frequently mentioned on Fox & Friends in the US and have become online friends with the news anchors with whom I’ve corresponded with for the past nine years. My books were also mentioned in the UK’s Sunday Express, Hello and OK and the International Business Times.
Speaking of which, buy my latest book, Storm Over Typhoon Theatre.
GETTING AWARDS AND DEALING WITH IT
Yes, your book could be nominated for an award too. Being nominated or winning an award is nice ... but don’t get hung up on it. That should not be your reason for writing.
FINALLY, YOU MUST BE NUTS!
If you want to write for children full-time, you must be slightly-extremely off your rocker, loco, nuts, gila or 100% SEOW – of which I am, by virtue of my last name.
A writer’s life is tough; it’s akin to being a struggling waiter waiting for his big acting break and frankly, there’s not a lot of money in writing children’s books.
That’s why we have to rely on the kindness of grants or our publishers. Which reminds me: Edmund, thank you for my massive royalty increase which I am still waiting for. I need it because Sam, Sebbie, Di-Di-Di and Xandy all want a percentage since I used their likenesses without their legal consent. And they’re of age to take action!
Thank you, Edmund!
Check out the collection of books here. Click here for David Seow's blog.