One of the problems with writing picture books, I reckon, is the 32 page size limit imposed on them by the size of paper folds. A sheet of A1 paper folded in half, then half again, then one more time, equals 8 sheets of A4. Stitch 4 bundles of A4 together and you have 32 pages, the standard size of a picture book. If you are onto a good story and the ideas are flowing thick and fast, then you can use up all the available space really quickly. Being a picture book , however, you have to save some space for the pictures, and preferably lots and lots of space if your illustrator is half decent and is on the same wavelength as you. Unfortunately for what I thought were my well chosen words, James is more than half decent and so he needed lots and lots of white space to let his talent run free.
In this first daft you can see I was ready to head off on several tangents that appealed to my sense of adventure. It was pointed out to me later on when the plot was coming together, by Cate Sutherland, Fremantle Press’s children’s publisher , that the tangents tended to detract from the core of the story. That is the reason that Knut setting off in his head to discover America and trade with the Indians came to a sticky end. Ironic really, as that is precisely what happened to many of the Vikings that first set foot on Newfoundland. The Native Americans didn’t like them one little bit and fired a multitude arrows in their general direction.
The same thing happened to the scene when Knut and his imaginary band of hooligans decide to attack and burn the monasteries of Northern England. We cut it short and let the reader imagine the consequences of a full-on Viking raid on a monastery full of placid, defenceless monks. Showing monks murdered or being led away to the slave markets and their houses set on fire probably wasn’t all that advisable if we wanted Knut to remain a sympathetic character. Our audience might be a bit young for anti-heroes.
Another long scene that bit the dust was where Josh declares he is going become a follower of the Norse Gods. I originally had him announce to his Nan, ‘I’m off to become a Pagan.’ Nan looks over her glasses and says sternly, ‘Over my dead body,’ and drags him by his ear down the street to the Sunday School to meet the Vicar, who we based on Dawn French, the Vicar of Dibley. There were two problems with this. Firstly, we didn’t want to set up a competition between the Pagans and the Christians in a book for children and where a lot of the customers are likely to be Christian libraries. That battle was fought 900 years ago and the Christians won, with Scandinavia converting to Christianity around 1100AD. The second reason is that hardly any kids go to Sunday School anymore. We could just image modern readers asking, ‘Sunday what?’
I often say it is so much easier writing novels where the only constraint on the length and number of words is the boredom threshold of the editor. If you can keep her interest up to when the hero is hanging from his finger nails from a two hundred metre high ledge, then you can continue, but the minute the story starts to lag is the time to cut it short. Like about now.