A tip for aspiring children's book writers and illustrators: Try not to let yourself get sucked into too much fussing over preparation and ritual. Make a routine and then stick to it.
Now to follow my own advice...
Welcome to Inkygirl: Reading, Writing and Illustrating Children's Books (archive list here) which includes my Creating Picture Books series, Writer's and Illustrator's Guide To Twitter, interviews, #BookADay, writing/publishing industry surveys, and 250, 500, 1000 Words/Day Writing Challenge. Also see my Inkygirl archives, and comics for writers (including Keiko and Will Write For Chocolate).
I tweet about the craft and business of writing and illustrating at @inkyelbows. If you're interested in my art or other projects, please do visit DebbieOhi.com. Thanks for visiting! -- Debbie Ridpath Ohi
A tip for aspiring children's book writers and illustrators: Try not to let yourself get sucked into too much fussing over preparation and ritual. Make a routine and then stick to it.
Now to follow my own advice...
Thanks so much to CANSCAIP for inviting me to be a speaker at the Packaging Your Imagination conference at Humber College this past weekend. I had a fantastic time and once again appreciated what a wonderful kidlit/YA community we have here in Canada.
Thanks to Kate Blair for being my "shadow" during the event; Kate helped get me find the right rooms, introduced me at my workshop, made me feel welcome. Kate is a middle grade and YA writer, and placed 2nd in the 2010 Toronto Star Short Story Contest (out of 1800 entries!) as well as being longlisted for the CBC short story contest in both 2011 and 2012. You can find out more about Kate and her work at Kateblair.com.
Anyway, the subway was shut down between Eglinton and Bloor so I ended up taking a cab and arrived way early! The organizers were still setting up. I think I was one of the first to pick up my speaker badge:
Ran into my Torkidlit friend Karen Krossing, who helped distract me from my pre-talk jitters by walking around the venue with me, figuring out where the speaker coats could be stored, etc. Here are CANSCAIP Administrative Director Helena Aalto and PYI Co-Director Lorna Poplak, just before the conference officially opened:
I also had time to check out the art show. So much wonderful children's book art, and I also loved the process sketches that some people included. I'm new enough that I also got a thrill to see my own art up on display...and also very cool to see my sister's art right beside it:
Teresa Toten's opening keynote was inspiring! I've just started reading THE UNLIKELY HERO OF ROOM 13B, Teresa's novel that won the 2013 Governor General Literary Award For Children's Literature, and am loving it so far.
After that were the first set of workshop sessions, including mine. Thanks SO much to the Humber AV crew, who did a fantastic job at PYI (especially Tom on the far right, who was my AV helper):
and the E-Learning team in my session, who helped the streaming portion run smoothly for virtual attendees:
And here's her screen with the live video in the top left and my current slide on the right:
After the conference, I asked Kate how the streaming went and she reports it ran smoothly, thanks to the Humber College tech crew. You can also read Kate's report about being a virtual attendee at CANSCAIP's event on her blog. Kate's FIRST children's book (she's author/illustrator), GRACE, comes out from Holiday House Books early next year!
Back to PYI. Judging from feedback afterward, the session seemed to go well, yay! I was still nervous, but it was a bit easier than last time I gave a talk, plus the attendees were enthusiastic and asked interesting questions. Partway through, I was actually having fun.
After my session, I chatted with some of the attendees, including Rebecca (who had flown from NEWFOUNDLAND for PYI!) and Peter Shelton, then stayed in the room so I could hear Ashley Spires talk about her work:
I so love Ashley's bubbly enthusiasm and energy! Ashley talked about the creation process for Binky The Space Cat series of junior graphic novels, which I found fascinating, entertaining and informative. Did you know that Ashley initially drew all her herringbone and other intricate textures by HAND? Wow. I think Ashley noticed the look of awe (ok, maybe more like horror :-)) on my face when she told us this.
Anyway, finally getting to meet Ashley Spires in person was one of my personal highlights at PYI.
With my talk over, I could relax at lunchtime and just chat. Thanks to my lunchtime companions for some great kidlit/YA conversation (including my Torkidlit pal Nicole Winters in the bottom right):
I looked around for my MiGWriters critique partner, Andrea Mack, but missed seeing her! Happily, we ran into each other later in the conference.
Above: Lana Button, Jan Dolby and Joyce Grant at PYI 2014. Joyce and Jan are the creative team behind the GABBY series from Fitzhenry and Whiteside Publishers. Finally getting to meet Jan Dolby in person was another personal highlight during the conference; we were seatmates at one of the sessions, plus I had a chance to admire her very cool custom pencil case.
In the afternoon, I was faced (again) with an impossible choice: I wanted to attend all the workshops! I ended up opting for the industry panel with Susan Rich (Editor-At-Large at Little, Brown) and Tara Walker (Editorial director at Tundra Books):
An excellent panel, so informative AND entertaining. Teresa Toten was a fabulous moderator. And I loved the rapport between Susan and Tara -- lots of laughter during this session :-D. They both were so generous with their info, and we all learned a great deal.
I missed getting a photo of Susin Nielsen (maybe because I was laughing too hard), who gave a wonderful closing keynote - see audience above. We even got to see a clip of her acting role in the original Degrassi Junior High (she was a screenwriter)!
Plus LOOK, I won a prize in the raffle! I never win anything but thanks to CANSCAIP and the Vermont College Of Fine Arts, I won this bag of goodies:
The popcorn and the chocolate are already gone (yummmmmm), and I'm using the water bottle in my office; it'll be a nice reminder of this excellent event.
Thanks to Lena Coakley for giving me a lift to a small gathering hosted by Sharon Jennings afterwards. Sadly, a bad headache prevented me from staying as long as I had wished but it was fun chatting with some of the others who came. Thank you, Sharon!
And again, THANK YOU so much to CANSCAIP and all the volunteers and organizers. Everything went so smoothly and I had so much fun, plus came away super-inspired.
If you're a Canadian children's book author, illustrator or performer, I strongly recommend you checking out CANSCAIP's website....and do consider attending next year's PYI event!
Just finished WE WERE LIARS by Emily Lockhart. Totally lives up to the hype, I have to say.
It's a novel I definitely want to reread (if you've read the novel yourself, you know why).
In hunting down interviews with the author, I was intrigued by the fact that Emily rewrote the novel multiple times as well as reorganizing "over and over." This hard work clearly paid off.
What I loved most: the voice. I only had to read a sample excerpt to be hooked, and immediately bought the book for my Kindle.
More about We Were Liars on the Penguin Random House site.
Find out more about Donalyn Miller's Book-A-Day Challenge on the Nerdy Book Club site, and you can read archives of my #BookADay posts.
Above: I love teacher Colby Sharp's enthusiasm for reading and how he shares it with his students. "READING IS AWESOME!"
Thanks to Colby for letting me use his classroom as photo reference for some of the illustrations I did for the Judy Blume chapter books. He and my teacher friend Allison Durno were kind enough to share reference photos with me during the process.
Here's how my illustration for pg 7 of THE ONE IN THE MIDDLE IS THE GREEN KANGAROO (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2014) began:
Then it became this:
Then I referred to a couple of stills from a short video that Colby sent me:
and the illustration became this:
Then Simon & Schuster art director Lauren Rille worked her magic and here's the final page layout:
In thanks for the photo ref, I put Colby in the auditorium crowd near the end of the book:
Read more about how Simon & Schuster's Lauren Rille and I created a new look for Judy Blume classics at the Nerdy Book Club.
To find out more about the Judy Blume books I illustrated, see my Illustrating Judy Blume page. I'll also be talking about the process during a panel discussion at the INSPIRE! Toronto Book Fair on Sunday, November 16th on the Spark Stage at 1 pm.
I just bought GO, SHAPES, GO!, a gorgeously illustrated early concept book with such a *fun* story, and it launched TODAY. I've been a fan of Denise Fleming's work ever since I saw Denise demonstrate her pulp painting process at the SCBWI Illustrator Intensives a few years ago.
You can find out more about Denise and her wonderful picture books at: Denisefleming.com (she also offers free READ posters for download!)
Writers and illustrators: don't get so caught up in promotion and marketing that you forget to CREATE.
As some of you already know, I've been having fun drawing with found objects during the past year:
Then just recently, I posted a video of how I created a tomato doodle:
Thanks to middle grade author Rina Heisel for tweeting this, which made my day:
I met Cheryl Rainfield through the Toronto Area Middle Grade/YA Author Group (also known as Torkidlit) and am a big fan of her work (especially SCARS and HUNTED in the past). A survivor of abuse, Cheryl often draws upon her own experience in her intense and highly charged fiction. I love Cheryl's enthusiasm for kidlit/YA as well as her positive outlook and support of others in the community.
STAINED was named one of Bank Street College's Best Books Of The Year (2014) for ages 14 and up, and was a SCBWI Crystal Kite Finalist.
For those in the Toronto area: Cheryl will be speaking about STAINED and signing copies (as well as of SCARS and HUNTED) at Chapters Scarborough at 2 pm on Saturday, Sept. 13th, 2014.
Q. What’s your writing process? Or What was your writing process for STAINED?
A. I write and edit my manuscripts by hand. Longhand writing feels more connected to my inner voice, my creativity, and more alive. And then I type the writing into MS Word. At various points, I also send out my manuscript to other writers to get feedback, and then I revise again. For STAINED, I did about thirteen drafts before it sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and then multiple drafts before it was published. At one point my editor Karen Grove asked me to try writing some scenes from the abductor’s point of view. I tried, but I think because what I wrote about was so personal—I was drawing on my own trauma and abuse experience—and because I can’t bear to be in the head of an abuser, especially an abuser character based on my own abuser—I found it painful and I struggled writing those scenes. Ultimately I took those scenes out; the book worked better, the way I could write it, with just Sarah and Nick’s alternating viewpoints.
STAINED was the first book I’ve written where I used two different perspectives, and I really enjoyed the process. I put a lot of myself into both Sarah and Nick. I think the alternate points of view helped fill in the gaps in Sarah’s story that she couldn’t know about from her perspective, gave the reader a small breather, and sometimes worked to increase the tension. I also used them to gradually develop the relationship between Sarah and Nick, and the awareness that they really loved each other.
I typically write a lot of drafts quickly, always trying to make the writing and story better, stronger, more powerful, and often doing drafts focused on different things each time. In early drafts, I tend to write the conflicts and tension, the emotion in the characters, the action and plot, and tend to leave out description and setting—I think because as a person and an abuse survivor that’s what I notice most in the world: tension, body language, emotion. So then I have to go back in and layer those things in, as well as symbols and metaphors if I’ve left them out.
I also usually have to go back in and intentionally add lightness and breathing room for the reader. I'm so used to tension and fear and and pain—it's what I lived most of my life and know inside out—that putting in happier moments has to be very intentional on my part. I also think tension and conflict helps make a book a page turner—but readers need breathing room, too. I had a lot of fun giving Sarah and Nick a love of comics and superheroes in STAINED, since I also love and read them, and I also enjoyed making Nick draw (I do, too), giving him geeky technological savviness (also my love), and giving Sarah the strength and courage to stand up to bullies who were harassing other kids (also part of myself). And I managed, probably for my first book ever, to give my main character two really good parents--something that comes from my finally having some loving, safe people in my life, and especially my therapist. I think I'm getting better at adding in lightness in my early drafts.
I used to be a pantser writer, not wanting to feel confined by outlines, but I now do outlines with the knowledge that I can change them—and they help me write a lot better, faster. With every book I write, I use THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby to help guide my initial focus, character and plot building, and outline, and also at least my first draft. I’ve found that book incredibly helpful and valuable, as well as a lecture I attended by Donald Maass where I learned a lot more about symbols, parallels, and reversals, which I also add in. And I always, always get feedback from other writers and polish my work before sending it on to my agent. I want my writing to be as polished as it can be before I submit it, so that it’s more likely to get published.
Q. How did STAINED get published?
A. My agent at the time—Andrea Somberg at Harvey Klinger—submitted my manuscript to editors and found a home for STAINED at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This was a relief to me, since WestSide, the publisher who’d published SCARS and HUNTED, had closed just before HUNTED came out, and I needed a new, stable, and good publishing home. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been fantastic with me and STAINED, releasing STAINED in the US, Canada, and the UK, in print, ebook, and audiobook formats. It’ll also be coming out in a cheaper paperback format mid-2015; I’m excited about that!
I think having a good agent vastly improves a writer’s chances of getting a manuscript published; an agent can submit work to publishers who are closed to writers without agents, and that includes most of the big publishing houses. Although you can get published without an agent, it’s a lot harder. I also learned when I attended college for an editing certificate that publishers generally have two standard contracts—one for authors without an agent, and one for authors with an agent. And the contract for authors with an agent automatically starts at higher royalty rates and better clauses and options. And a good agent knows editors personally and can figure out what manuscript to place with what editor, and also help guide a writer’s career. So I knew I needed an agent.
I actually got my first contract by myself—through the slushpile with WestSide Books—but after years of research, reading writing technique books, publishing industry books, and articles, I knew I needed an agent to negotiate the contract for me, and to help advance my career. I’d initially queried Andrea with HUNTED, which she’d rejected, but her rejection letter was one of the nicest and longest I’d received, and she mentioned hoping to work with me on another book. Her letter stood out to me. So when I got an offer for SCARS (two offers, actually, almost at the same time), I contacted her and asked if she’d represent me, and she did. She also sold HUNTED, and of course STAINED, and I’m grateful for all her help.
Traditional publishing can be slow. I signed the final contract for STAINED in February 2012; I think we got the offer in late 2011, worked on the edits in 2012 (and waited for feedback in between), and then STAINED was published in October 2013. But there’s so much that goes into producing a book—not just the content editing, but also copyediting, proofreading, cover design, interior design and layout, jacket copy, and then also promotion and distribution.
I love what Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did with STAINED—the designer did an incredible, tasteful job with the final cover, pulling a rich, deep purple into the title (because Sarah has a purpleish port-wine stain on her cheek that she obsesses about) and also into the endpapers, and black vertical streaks reminiscent of the cabin Sarah was locked in; the gorgeous texture to the matte jacket; featuring the tagline on the cover: “Sometimes you have to be your own hero;” picking a worn, broken-looking font for the chapter heads with the name and time stamps and initial first words in the first paragraph; using nicely textured cream paper; the readable typeset; and the tiny visual surprise on the hardcover along the spine beneath the book jacket—the title, my name, and publisher info in a gorgeous iridescent purple. I love how a book looks, as you may be able to tell (laughing) so it was a delight to have such care taken with STAINED. Holding a finished book that you wrote for the first time is such a joy.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring YA writers?
A. First—if your dream is to get published, don’t give up.
You may face a lot of rejection over time, but if you persist I think you’ll eventually get published. It took me more than ten years and hundreds of rejections from both editors and agents before I got SCARS published. If I’d given up before then—and in the last few years I was very despairing—then I might never have been published.
Edit your work over and over until it sounds right. One trick I use for some drafts is to read my manuscript aloud. I can hear what works and what doesn’t better that way. It also helps to put your manuscript away for at least a week (I often do two to even four weeks) between drafts before editing again, so that you have as clear a read as possible and can see what’s really working and what really isn’t.
Make sure to get honest feedback from other writers; that can help you advance so much as a writer. Don’t change everything based on what others say, though; make sure to listen to your gut, and to change what feels right. Let the manuscript and feedback sit for a week or more before acting on it unless you’re absolutely sure. I found that joining a critique group of other writers who wrote in the same genre I did helped me immensely; I not only got great feedback, but I also got to hear what worked and what didn’t in others’ writing, and learn from that.
Learn the craft of writing—attend conferences and professional talks, read articles online such as K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors and in magazines such as Writer’s Digest, and most especially read books on writing technique (if you can learn that way) or take some classes.
Writing technique books have really helped me; I’ve read (and bought) more than a hundred books on technique, and I go back and reread some of them and glean new things as I progress as a writer.
If you can't afford to buy them, don't forget about your library! I list a lot of writing technique books I recommend on my blog and website. Two of the most helpful books I read when starting out are Self-Editing For Fiction Writers: How To Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Brown and Dave King, and Live Writing: Breathing Life Into Your Words by Ralph Fletcher. Later, when I’d learned a lot more about writing technique, some books that really helped me a lot are Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, and Bestseller: Secrets of Successful Writing by Celia Brayfield. And right now, my top three current favorites are The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps To Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby, Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Time Shares His Craft Techniques and Secrets by Sol Stein, and Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide To Using Brain Science To Hook Readers From The Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron. I also highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Learn from them, take what works for you, and discard the rest.
Read. Read as much as you can—for pleasure and for craft. Read in the genre you write in (and hopefully love to read); you’ll learn from it, and you’ll also fill your own creative well. And write about what you care deeply about. Your readers will sense your passion and respond to it.
For other helpful interviews, please visit the Inkygirl Interview Archives.
I continue to be in awe of you parents out there who manage to carve out time for your writing and illustrating in the midst of taking care of children, household chores and (in some cases) a day job as well.
At a recent conference, several working parents told me how they were still struggling to find the time to write and illustrate.
Having no children myself, I can't offer practical advice, but here are some online resources which might help. If you can offer tips from your own experience or know of other other helpful resources, please do post them in the comments below. Thanks!
Some inspiration: Cynthia Lord wrote her first book, Rules, between 4-6 in the morning, every morning. "I have a son with autism and our days have always been full of his schedule and his needs." Her book ended up winning a Newbery Honor! More via Kate Messner's blog.
RESOURCES AND TIPS:
Finding Time To Write - Parents' Version - by Julie Duffy on StoryADay.org. Main tips: coordinate your work sessions with your kids' energy levels, work to an outline, stretch sessions when you can, sit where you can hear your kids, be willing to stop after 2-3 sessions.
Finding Time To Draw - On Step, Skip, Pause. Main tips: Work in the early morning before everyone else is up. Sketch while watching tv, while waiting, on the public transport, at friends' houses, in short snatched moments, at concerts and plays.
Writing and mother: how I (sort of) do both - Shannon Hale explains how she does it. Main tips: Enlist help, constantly reevaluate your balance, set priorities, take a day of rest, commit fully, separate writing from publishing.
Busy Moms Write - A blog by Marcia Fowler, who is a mom of two boys, a freelance writer, and a certified elementary school teacher and reading specialist. "Busy Moms Write is a blog to inspire other moms to finally sit down and write, even if it’s only for five minutes a day."
11 Ways Stay-At-Home Moms (and Other Busy Folks) Can Find Time To Write - by K.M. Weiland. Be stubborn and endure, find your focus, connect with family every day, remember there are others in your boat, take your work seriously, it's never too late to start, be realistic in your goals, give up on the idea of trying to please everyone, enjoy your blossing career guilt-free, being a mom and writer are not mutually exclusive.
How Busy Writers Can Stay Productive & Keep Their Sanity - by Jeff Goins. Give up the ideal workspace, don't sacrifice your family, use the "write, edit, write" method (longer pieces) and self-edit method (shorter pieces), know your limits, stay positive and grateful.
A Parent's Time To Write - by Liz Boltz Ranfeld. Prioritize, know what can and can't be done, get up early, ask your partner for help, create a specific writing space but be flexible, carve out time at work to write, let your kids know how important your writing is.
How To Find Time When You're A Busy Mom - on WikiHow. Be prepared, cut down on tv viewing, help your kids understand, adjust your sleep patterns and get up earlier, get the children involved, always carry a notebook, use multiple writing tools or resources, persevere.
Finding Time To Write - by Moira Allen. Treat time as an investment and figure out your "time budget," examine your priorities, eliminate time-wasters, teach others to respect your time.
One mistaken assumption that I've noticed some newbie writers making: Sending out their writing too soon, assuming that the editor who buys their short story (or novel, etc.) is going to be helping them polish the piece anyway.
DO NOT DO THIS.
Never, ever send an mss out just after you've finished it. Put it away for a few days (a few weeks at least, for a novel). That way you'll be able to reread more objectively, without the rosy glow of "omigosh this is brilliant just wait until publishers see this."
I'm a foodie, so often think in terms of food analogies. In this case, it would be sort of like a first-time restauranteur opening before they've perfected their dishes. Turn off the restaurant critics early on, and you make it tougher for yourself longterm.
If you're a new picture book writer, this is even MORE vital. Why? Because I've noticed that many non-pb writers assume that writing a picture book is easy because there are fewer words, that it's something they can do on the side for extra money while they work on their "real" books.
Vaguely related side note:
Others may differ, but I also advise NOT giving it to your critique group to read too soon. Why? Because there is a real value in getting feedback from someone who is reading the piece for the first time. Yes, there's a value in getting feedback for a rough version so you can polish it before sending it out to an editor. Be aware, however, that after the first critique, your crit partners will likely be giving feedback on your revisions rather than an overall first-time impression.
Respect your readers, before and after publication.