Monday, 20 September 2010

Interview with NATASCHA BIEBOW: Founder of Blue Elephant Storyshaping

Natascha Biebow is a published author, has worked as a commissioning editor in children’s books for several years, and is the founder of Blue Elephant Storyshaping, which offers a range of creative services to children's book authors, illustrators, agents and publishers.

Hi Natascha and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I have written two picture books: Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, winner of the Booktrust Best Book for Babies and have several other writing projects underway, including a middle-grade fiction novel.

I have 17 years’ experience commissioning and editing pre-school novelty books, picture books, early readers, young fiction, and (pop-up) non-fiction at ABC, Dorling Kindersley and Random House Children’s Books in London.

I have just launched Blue Elephant Storyshaping, a coaching, editing and mentoring service aimed at helping children’s authors and illustrators shape their picture book and young fiction stories pre-submission.

Find out more at

I am the Regional Advisor (Chair) of the British Isles Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the largest professional children's writing organization in the world and provider of a variety of excellent professional development opportunities.

I was born in Johannesburg and grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where I attended the American school. I have lived in London since 1993, where I moved after completing my B.A. in Developmental Psychology from Smith College, MA.

Now, I live just outside London with my family. I love reading, eating chocolate, spending time with kids and travelling to exciting new places.

* You are the Regional Advisor (Chair) of the British Isles Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the largest professional children's writing organization in the world. Could you tell us a little about SCBWI and what it can offer children’s writers and illustrators?

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is the only professional organization specifically for those individuals writing and illustrating for children and young adults in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia.

It acts as a network for the exchange of knowledge between writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers and others involved with literature for young people. There are currently more than 22,000 members worldwide, in over 70 regional chapters writing and illustrating in all genres for young readers from board books to young adult (YA) novels, making it the largest professional children's book organization in the world.

The SCBWI sponsors two annual International Conferences on Writing and Illustrating for Children as well as dozens of regional conferences and events throughout the world. The bi-monthly magazine SCBWI Bulletin, offers awards and grants for works-in-progress, and provides many informational publications on the art and business of writing and selling books for young readers.

In the British Isles region, our numerous events provide excellent opportunities for networking, meeting industry professionals and keeping current with the marketplace.
These include a bi-monthly professional series, an annual retreat, a two-day conference each November, critique groups, a social network and list serve, as well as local networks events around the country. We also have a quarterly newsletter.

To find out more visit

* What inspired you to become a children's book editor and how did you prepare for this career?

When I was at university, I wanted to find something that would combine my interests of writing and editing and working with young children. Working in children’s books seemed like the perfect fit. I competed the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course) in the US, a six-month post-graduate programme that exposes you to all areas of book and magazine publishing. It is run by industry professionals and the final project is very hands-on, which is a great introduction to what it is like to work in publishing. Through the course, I made a lot of contacts, and I was lucky to get a position as editorial assistant at a picture book publisher a few months afterwards.

* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child? How do you think they compare to the children’s books available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

Where to begin? I don’t really remember owning many picture books – I don’t think picture books were as widely accessible in the 70s as they are now. We had a few beautiful books like Brian Wildsmith’s ABC and classics like Snow White and Where the Wild Things Are. I also remember a collection of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales in which I particularly loved The Little Match Girl, although my mum says it made me cry every time she read it to me!

When I was older, I read books at every chance I could get. I was lucky that my grandmother, who lived in England, sent me books for my birthday and Christmas. Through her I was introduced to Pippi Longstocking, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, Roald Dahl, Judy Bloom, The Black Stallion, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, and many others.

I think children today are very lucky to have such a huge choice of books aimed at every kind of reader and interest. Authors and illustrators are innovating all the time. My perception is that teens are reading much more sophisticated and sometimes darker and more violent books than I had access to. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it is perhaps a reflection of our society. But children do still love anything that is funny or heart-warming and so a good story is what will always win them over as life-long readers. Also, young children are often visually literate long before they can read and so you can be really inventive with the narrative in the illustrations in picture books. This is what I like to focus on when I’m editing.

* Could you explain what being a Commissioning Editor entails?

A Commissioning Editor is charged by the publishing house for which they work to bring in commercial new books. In the UK, editors usually specialize in a particular area – picture books or fiction. In my case, I commissioned picture books for young readers from 0-6 years old, including fiction, non-fiction and novelty formats. I also edited young fiction, mostly aimed aimed at 7-9s.

A commissioning editor works with the author and illustrator to develop their project from the moment it is first submitted through to publication. They are your lobbyist in-house, and must often convince the whole team, from Editorial, to Sales & Marketing, to the Publisher that the publisher should acquire this book. This is why it’s important to think about your unique sales hook when you pitch a new project to an editor.

* What was the greatest challenge of being an Editor?

The greatest challenge, especially for picture book editors, can be to convince Sales and Marketing to share your vision and invest in making a project into a book in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace with fewer and fewer outlets for sales. Editors are often working with very rough material at acquisitions stage (a manuscript, illustration sample and maybe a mock-up of a novelty) and often a lot will evolve over time as the editing and design process start. This means colleagues have to trust the editor to help deliver a commercial project in the end.

Another challenge can be that today editors don’t have as much time to spend nurturing authors and illustrators, especially new talent, and this can often be a very rewarding part of an editor’s job.

* What inspired you to set up Blue Elephant Storyshaping and why the name Blue Elephant?

I set up Blue Elephant Storyshaping for two main reasons: one is that the way publishers work is evolving and the second is that it will free me up me to do what I do best – edit.

Why do you need independent editorial advice? Won’t you get your book edited by a publisher for free? You might ask.

Sometimes. But publishing is changing. In the tough marketplace, publishing houses have limited in-house resources and are aiming to reduce their overheads by acquiring more finished, high-quality books that don’t require as much polishing. Agents are also increasingly pressed for time and their job is much easier when they are sent fully developed projects to place with their clients. Blue Elephant Storyshaping can help authors and illustrators hone their work so that publishers and agents sit up and take notice of their submissions.

My favourite job is crafting books with writers and illustrators and shaping stories. I have a talent for visualizing books and encouraging authors and illustrators to find the heart of their stories. I love collaborating with people who are passionate about their work and understand that creating a great book is a journey, an organic process that evolves over time. So, when I decided to work part-time, starting my own creative consulting business felt like the right move.

I chose the name based on my love for the colour blue, but also because I liked the idea of stories emerging out of the blue and evolving over time. I have always loved elephants since I was little and admire their wise and nurturing natures. And Storyshaping very much describes what I am aiming to achieve – Blue Elephant Storyshaping is all about helping authors and illustrators discover the shape of their stories and work on their craft to make their vision sing.

* Could you tell us about the ethos behind Blue Elephant Storyshaping and the kind of working relationship you aim to build between you and your clients? 

I recognize that each book is unique and that authors and illustrators are individuals. I have the time to help them develop their craft, understand the creative process, and can empower them to find their vision.

I aim to be supportive, encouraging and to tailor my services to each author and illustrator so that they can achieve their goals. I can also bring a commercial view to each project, based on my 17 years’ as Commissioning Editor in children’s publishing.

I am an author myself, so I know how challenging the journey to publication can be. Together we’ll go on a storyshaping journey. We’ll explore, have fun, dig deep for the heart of the story. Sometimes it will be inspirational, sometimes it may be challenging, but together we will craft the best book that’s inside each author and illustrator.

* When looking at a new manuscript what, for you, are the main things that grab your attention and makes a piece of work stand out?

Voice is the first thing that will grab me. Also memorable characters and an original concept or take on the world.

* When reading submissions what would you say are the most common mistakes made by aspiring writers?

A pet peeve is authors or illustrators who send material to editors or agents that aren’t appropriate for their lists. It’s important that the author or illustrator has done their homework and is aware of the current market and is targeting their submission accordingly. Joining and participating in organizations such as the SCBWI are an excellent way to help authors and illustrators do this.

It’s a good idea to check whether the editor or agent is happy to accept submissions – and how, whether by email or post – and to show that you know and understand what else they have edited.

Also, we don’t want to hear that your child, dog, or neighbour liked it. Or see any typos in your cover letter. And, please, 12pt type double-spaced and numbered pages on your submissions.

* How long on average would you work on a particular book?

When I was working at Random House, it could take up to two years until a picture book was published. This allowed for development work, design, taking the project to a couple of bookfairs to sell foreign rights, sell-in in the UK, production and shipping. Sometimes, projects take longer, particularly complex novelties. Young fiction takes a little less time, probably about 6-8 months, depending how heavily illustrated it is.

* Do you specialise in a certain age group or do you offer editorial advice across the age ranges?

Blue Elephant Storyshaping will consider picture books, young readers (up to 3000 words), young fiction (up to 10,000) words and middle readers (up to 30,000 words. I will also work with illustrators on developing their portfolio.

Please see my website for more detailed information on how we can work together.

* Would you ever decline to work with a client and if so, for what reasons?

If your project has storyshaping potential, I will do everything I can to help you develop your work to the next level. But if, for any reason, I feel your project is not a good match for Blue Elephant Storyshaping, I may turn you down with feedback and suggestions for how you might continue to improve your craft. You are welcome to contact me again in the future and submit new or revised material.

Examples of people I might turn down are those with manuscripts over 30,000 words or who aren’t particularly serious about writing or illustrating for children.

You can find detailed information about submission guidelines on my website:

* What advice do you have for anyone interested in working with Blue Elephant Storyshaping?

Please don’t be shy. Get in touch! Whether you are a new or established author or illustrator of picture books, young or middle grade fiction, I would be delighted to hear from you! We will go on a journey of discovery to shape your story into the best book possible. I can help you hone your craft by providing detailed feedback, insight into the marketplace, encouragement and direction so that you travel one step closer to publication.

Do you have lots of ideas or sketches and don’t know which one to work on? Through a creative brainstorming session we can identify the most commercial ones and agree a way forward.

Are you a picture book illustrator who would like some help with writing and storyshaping so that you can create your own picture books?

Do you have a project on which you'd like ongoing feedback to polish and shape it? Or perhaps you find it challenging to find time to write or illustrate and actually finish or revise your work for submission and would find it helpful to work with a coach and a mentor to give you regular feedback and cheer you on. I can help work with you over time to achieve your goal.

If you’re an illustrator, I can guide you in developing your style and portfolio.

If you’re a writer, I can give you a professional evaluation of your work and help you edit it.

These are just some examples of how Blue Elephant Storyshaping can work with authors and illustrators.

Check out the website for more information and get in touch!

* What is one thing you wish every beginner writer knew?

That what really counts is persistence, professionalism and bum-on-seat time. Creating books and getting them published is hard work! But it’s also wonderful, especially when you see your young audience enjoying your books.

* Words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Visualise and don’t give up!


Sue Eves said...

Thanks Tracy and good luck with Blue Elephant, Natascha! I'm interested to read that you'll consider shaping young fiction and middle grade as well as picture books and portfolios. This sounds more like a full-time job to me!
I'll march on over to blueelephantstoryshaping to read more, thanks!

kathryn evans said...

I'm really quite excited about Blue Elephant Storyshaping - professional pre-submission editing seems to be the way things are going in the industry. To have some one we know we can trust is a real boon.

Goodl uck with it Natascha and thanks for the interview Tracy.

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