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, my poetry for young readers, #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
Entries in picture books (28)
Advice For Young Writers, Tea, Books and Office Owls: Three Questions With Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple
Today, I'm delighted to have Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple visiting Inkygirl. Jane and Heidi are co-authors of YOU NEST HERE WITH ME, a new picture book that recently came out from Boyds Mill Press, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. I've also been a longtime fan of Jane's work, especially her fairy tale retellings.
I asked both Jane and Heidi to answer Three Questions for me, and here are their answers:
For Part 2 of the YOU NEST HERE WITH ME series, please see Three Questions With Jane Yolen.
Heidi Stemple didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published twenty books and numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.
I had a chance to hang out with Heidi at the SCBWI Summer Conference last year. She's smart, she's funny and she's so supportive of others in the industry. Then partway through a group conversation, I also discovered that her mom is Jane Yolen (!!).
Heidi and Jane run a Picture Book Boot Camp (next one is Sept. 10-13, 2015), which is a Master Class in Jane's home:
Where to find out more about Heidi:
Synopsis of You Nest Here With Me (Boyds Mill Press, 2015):
This rhyming bedtime book is part lullaby and part introductory field guide for the smallest ornithologists. But, at its heart, it reminds baby birds and children alike that home is wherever you are safely tucked in with your family. If you look in the back of You Nest Here With Me , you'll see that part of the dedication is to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you want to know more about birds--including listening to owl calls, visit them at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=1478.
Q. Could you please take a photo of something in your office and tell us the story behind it?
I love birds. All birds. But, especially owls.
I have about a hundred owls in my house. Actually, I’ve never counted them, but there are a lot.
My mother, author Jane Yolen, wrote a book you might know called Owl Moon. It’s about a little girl who goes out owling with her dad. What you may not know is that the little girl is me and Pa is my father, David Stemple, who was a great owler. He was the one who taught me to call owls and now, once a year, I lead a team of owlers for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. On our best year (so far) we called down 67 owls from midnight to 7am.
These (pictured above) are probably my favorite owls—they make up a bookend that my dad had in his office. Now they sit on the bookshelf right next to my desk and remind me of him.
Q. What advice do you have for young writers?
When you live in a family of writers (my mother and both my brothers work in children’s books) you know that inspiration comes from everywhere. You never know when and from where an idea for a story will pop up. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open at all times for those ideas. And, write them down because ideas are slippery little buggers.
Every writer has all sorts of notes jotted all over the place with ideas for stories or poems or essays or speeches. I even have the beginning of a story on my iphone—you can’t really understand it because I dictated it with voice-to-text and it got most of the words wrong. But, it’s good enough for me to figure it out later when I am ready to write that story.
Q. What are you excited about right now?
I am always excited about my newest book and the book (or usually books) I am working on. So, besides the projects I am writing and researching right now (which involve pirates, the civil war, the Christmas Bird Count, cookies, the moon, monsters, and soup—yes soup) I am probably MOST excited about my brand new book You Nest Here With Me (co-authored by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Melissa Sweet). This is a book that took 12 years to get published. We sold it twice—to the same editor at 2 different publishing companies—and then waited 3 years for the illustrations. I am glad we were patient because we are so happy with the way it turned out.
For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.
I recently had a chance to read the f&gs (which stands for "folded and gathered", an unbound galley) for WHEREVER YOU GO, a new picture book coming out from Little, Brown in April, written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by my friend Eliza Wheeler.
LOVE THIS. When I read picture books for the first time (and second and third...) I usually read them out loud, and this one was so fun to read aloud with its rhythmical prose.
Young readers will appreciate the fun journey and look-more-closely-what-do-you-see gorgeous artwork. Adults will also appreciate the multi-layered interpretation of the prose. The following (especially when combined with the beautiful artwork on that spread) is just an example:
Every life landmark, the big and the small.
The moments you tripped,
the times you stood tall."
*snif* (this wasn't the only page spread that made me teary-eyed)
You can read the STARRED review of Wherever You Go on Kirkus Reviews.
Revamped this comic for use in Part 2 of my "How WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? was created" series. The post also includes a free, downloadable 32-page picture book thumbnail sketch template.
I met Patricia Storms through her Booklust blog and then the National Cartoonists Society, and have enjoyed watching her children's book career blossom. She has illustrated 20 books, three of which she is author as well as illustrator. Patricia says she was twelve when her first cartoon was published in a Toronto newspaper. She got paid five whole dollars for that cartoon, and has been inspired to write and draw ever since.
About NEVER LET YOU GO:
"I have described NEVER LET YOU GO as ‘The push and pull of parenthood’. Amazon’s description is quite nice, too: “Tender but never cloying, Never Let You Go gives a great, warm hug, followed by an encouraging pat as it sets up young readers to take their first big steps on the path to growing up. This story is destined to be a favourite read-aloud for parents and children alike, as the simple but powerful message of enduring love and support is one little readers will take to heart.”"
Q. What was your writing/illustration process for NEVER LET YOU GO?
I wish I could say my creative process was smooth and organized. It is not. So often things just kind of ‘happen’ for me. The idea for this book came to me about 3 years ago. I was feeling really down in the dumps at the time, to be honest. And I had a massive migraine. I tried to take a nap to relax, and I was in this odd dream/awake space and that is when this image of a penguin parent and her child popped into my head.
I had just recently read the novel ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro, so I guess that title was sifting in my head. I kept seeing this image of the child going back & forth to the parent, with the refrain ‘Never Let You Go’ playing over and over. After that the rest of the words starting flowing in as well. It really was one of those rare times when the book came almost fully formed like a gift from the stars. I was so tired I didn’t even have the strength to write down the story, so I called out to my husband (who was in the computer room across from the bedroom) to write down my idea before I forgot it.
When I felt better, I worked on creating a tight storyboard on large newsprint, and then I scanned the storyboard sketches and using Photoshop, I put the text in where I thought it would flow best. And then I promptly...let it sit on my desktop for a year.
The story was so different from anything I have ever worked on before, that I simply could not believe that anyone would like it. One of the reasons I was so uncertain about the story was because it was so personal and, well – ‘straight from the heart’.
Over the years my cartoon/illustration work has been cynical, angry, snarky, cheeky and silly, but I’ve generally avoided the heartfelt stuff. It’s not that I’m not capable of doing that work, but I was burned big-time when I was a young naïve teenage artist, and I’m still not sure if I’ve ever gotten over those experiences.
Creating this book was a very cathartic experience for me, I must say. Let’s just say the story is a lot about working out childhood issues. I suspect this is the case for many artists and writers in this business.
Q. What was your publication process?
Once again, my process is not, I think the ‘the norm’. But perhaps there is no ‘norm’?
The only reason that any editor ever saw this manuscript is because someone approached me. An editor at Scholastic had been looking at my old blog ‘BookLust’ (which now no longer exists) and was intrigued my some of my artwork.
Since we were getting along in our emails, I figured, what the heck, and asked if I could send her this manuscript I had sitting on my desktop. There aren’t very many words in the story (112), so it didn’t take long for her to read it. Basically, she wrote to me that she was very excited about the story and that’s when the whole process began.
After that it was a matter of getting the rest of the editorial team excited about the idea, and after that, well...it was a matter of convincing the next various levels to get excited about the idea, too. I had only sent black & white sketches to my editor, so at this stage I did some basic colour work in order to give the folks at Scholastic an idea of how I envisioned the story to be, with both words & colour.
It was almost exactly a year later before Scholastic finally offered me a contract. I don’t have an agent at this time, so I hired a literary consultant to negotiate my contract, and then the real work began. Because I had sent such a tight manuscript, there really wasn’t a lot of editing of words or layout that needed to be done. The major work was really getting the colours just right.
I had a lot of help from my art director as well as my editor. I was terrified most of the time, but it was a very supportive, nurturing environment. It was particularly scary because I was trying out some new styles. Usually I just hand-draw my art, ink it and then colour it in Photoshop. But this time I wanted to create a more warm and organic look, so I outlined the penguins with charcoal pencil (something I’d NEVER done before!) and I experimented with new brushes in Photoshop, and even added Japanese paper in the background for a wee bit of collage effect.
It was quite a growth experience for me, both artistically and personally.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring children's book writer/illustrators?
Don’t be like me! Ha. What I mean is: be more proactive, get your work out there, don’t wait a YEAR before sending something out. I still struggle with this issue – a great deal of my success is because others have found me, not because of me ‘getting my stuff out there’.
I find it SO easy to just talk myself into the blues and thus not send work out because I figure, who the heck is going to like it? It’s a terrible battle I have in my brain. I would also recommend seeking out people who are also interested in writing and/or illustrating for children, be that writer’s groups in person or online, as well as organizations such as CANSCAIP or SCBWI.
I would also add something that I think is pretty important, and it’s an issue that I still grapple with, too – try not to be too obsessed with what is selling in ‘the market’. There is SO much information out there right now, it’s pretty overwhelming.
Be aware of what appears to be selling, but I think what will serve aspiring writers & illustrators best is the strength & confidence to discover one’s own voice, and to develop one’s own unique path & stories. Ultimately there is no ‘set way’ to be published.
It’s really about discovering who you are, and what stories you want to tell. I’m still working this out for myself.
Q. What are you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you'd like to share?
I’m working on a couple of picture book stories that are very close to my heart – one about a super cute monster and another about a girl & a rhino. I hope they eventually see the light of day. These stories also have a lot of heart and emotion. I think it’s where I’d like to go, if the universe will allow it. Plus I have a lot of picture book ideas which my husband keeps nagging me to develop.
It’s the same old problem for me – I keep thinking they are silly and dumb and no one will like them. I’ve really got to get over it. Regarding upcoming events, well – I’m hosting a launch of my new book, NEVER LET YOU GO at A Different Drummer Bookstore in Burlington on Sunday November 10th at 2:00pm. There will be homemade cupcakes at that event!
For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.
Interview: Lisa Dalrymple and Suzanne Del Rizzo on the making of SKINK ON THE BRINK (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)
Title: SKINK ON THE BRINK
Author: Lisa Dalrymple - Illustrator: Suzanne Del Rizzo
Publisher: Fitzhenry & Whiteside - June 2013
I first heard about Skink On The Brink at a CANSCAIP meeting. Not only was the title intriguing, but I love the inspiring publication success story (details below). Lisa and Suzanne are popular children's book presenters; their activity session at Toronto's Word On The Street this past weekend drew over 100 young people! Lisa and Suzanne were kind enough to be interviewed for Inkygirl, and both give a TON of valuable info and insights into their process.
Lisa Dalrymple loves to travel and has lived in such countries as South Korea, Thailand and Scotland. She now lives with her husband and their three children in Fergus, Ontario. Her story, Skink on the Brink, won The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Writing for Children Competition in 2011 and is now a picture book illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo. Lisa is also the author of If It’s No Trouble… A Big Polar Bear and its sequel, Bubbly Troubly Polar Bear, coming in October 2013.
Suzanne Del Rizzo loves the squish of plasticine between her fingers. Her illustrations appear in Skink on the Brink (Fitzhenry & Whiteside Spring 2013), written by Lisa Dalrymple. Her cover illustrations appear in the YA novel The Ehrich Wiesz Chronicles: Demon Gate ( Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Fall 2013) written by Marty Chan. She lives in Oakville Ontario with her husband and four children.
About SKINK ON THE BRINK:
Stewie is a very special skink — he has a beautiful blue tail which gives him a superpower against his enemies. Stewie loves singing his songs and rhymes as he dashes around his home. But as he grows up his beautiful blue tail starts to turn grey — he can't call himself Stewie the Blue anymore! And without his rhymes, his home by the pond doesn't feel as special either. A new Tell-Me-More Storybook about self-esteem, change, and growing up. Includes non-fiction back matter with bonus information and activities.
See the Fitzhenry & Whiteside SKINK ON THE BRINK page for supplemental materials created by Lisa and Suzanne, including coloring pages, activity pages, word searches, and more.
For lots of photos of Suzanne's amazing plasticine-illustration process, read further down in the interview.
Q. What was your publication process for SKINK ON THE BRINK?
I actually can’t remember when I first started researching and writing the manuscript, but I think it was sometime around 2008. (It usually takes a couple of years for me to develop and craft a picture book story until it is finally submission ready.) During this time, I was also working on other books and I was trying to learn the ropes of the publishing industry by getting out, meeting other writers and professionals, and attending trade shows, festivals, etc.
In September 2010, I went to Word on the Street in Toronto. I remember that it was first thing in the morning that I saw Christie Harkin, the kids’ books editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, getting their booth ready for the day. I knew I wanted to talk to Christie, to find out what she was looking for in a manuscript and to establish a personal connection. However, first I had to walk around for a while to try to summon up the nerve. When I finally did, it was the end of the day and Christie was packing up her supplies to go home! She told me that she was developing a line of “Tell Me More” storybooks. In these books, while the story is, of course, the most important element, there’s also an additional educational component that can be more fully explored in the non-fiction back matter. We both agreed that Skink on the Brink might be a good fit for this line and that I should send it to her.
There was a long period where I heard nothing, but I was getting used to no response if an editor really wasn’t interested. By the time February 2011 rolled around, I had completely given up. I went with a group of friends to the OLA Superconference in February and some of them stopped by the Fitzhenry & Whiteside booth to say ‘hi’ to Christie. When she noticed my nametag, she said, “Hey! You’re the skink lady!” I’d never been so excited to think that she remembered me and my manuscript. We had a “pre-editorial” discussion right there and I went home to create yet another draft of the book I’d now been working on for three years.
When April 2011 rolled around and neither of the books I had under consideration with two separate houses had yet acquired that elusive “yes,” I submitted them both to the Writing for Children competition hosted by The Writers’ Union of Canada. This competition receives between 600-800 entries each year and I submitted every year so, of course, I had no real expectation that I would win.
But then there was a day, the same day that I heard from Tuckamore Press that they were ready to send me a contract for my book If It’s No Trouble… A Big Polar Bear, when the phone rang and Nancy MacLeod informed me that Skink on the Brink had won the competition – and that I was sworn to secrecy for almost a week! By this point, Christie and I had a friendly relationship and I think it may have been my post on Facebook, “This is one of the most exciting days of my life,” that prompted her to get in on the excitement and send me my first official book contract!
In October 2011, we signed the contract and Christie let me know that they were considering Suzanne Del Rizzo to illustrate the book. She sent me a few samples of Suzanne’s work. Of course, I was thrilled! Suzanne’s plasticine artwork is beyond anything I would have imagined for Stewie and his story and I was so excited to see it finally start coming to life.
In January 2012, Christie and I got started on the ‘first round’ of edits, which actually became the ‘never-ending round’ of edits as we kept passing the manuscript back and forth, trying to get some of the rough spots ‘just right’ so that Suzanne could get started.
And then the real fun began. I was so excited that Suzanne would consult with me about the illustrations. Her artwork was fabulous and she wanted to check in with me from a research perspective. We both wanted to make sure that we were using our combined knowledge to make sure that the book was as biologically accurate as possible.
Once the artwork was done, in January 2013, I received the ‘final round’ of edits from Christie and the book went to the printer. Then, in May, Suzanne and I were able to drop by the Fitzhenry & Whiteside office to finally hold the finished book in our hands!
Q. What was your writing/illustration process for SKINK ON THE BRINK?
I wish I could say I have a process that indicated some sort of routine but, working from home for the past few years with small kids around, any routine has been pretty hard to establish. I’m hoping this will improve when my youngest daughter starts school fulltime this year because I know how important it is to have that dedicated writing time. 98% of writing is pure hard work – just keeping that butt in your chair and working, preferably with few to no interruptions! Sure, there’s that other 2% of writing that’s genius inspiration, where the brilliant ideas come to you (usually in the shower) and you hop out, words already flying from your fingertips. That kind of writing can be done almost anytime, anywhere (although I would recommend getting out of the shower first.) But the other 98% is very difficult to do when there are so many demanding distractions of family life and when we all know how tempting it is to give in to distraction in the first place.
At the same time, my kids make huge contribution to my writing process. Getting their input and ideas, as I’m crafting a story is an invaluable part of the process for me. I can’t tell you how many years we’ve spent out in the wilderness on family camping trips, pretending to be skinks and shouting things like “I’m Stewie the Blue” over the pond – and how informative and inspiring it is to see how kids engage with your story when it’s still all coming together in your mind.
My process for this book began with lots of research. I must admit, I’d never heard of a skink before reading Lisa’s manuscript, so I had some homework to do before I even put pencil to paper. I researched all I could online and from books, and took photos at my cottage (which falls within the geographical region of the Common Five-Lined Skink’s habitat) to create a massive photo reference file:
Lisa also provided me with some great shots she had taken while at The Pinery Park where she had seen a Common Five-Lined skink up close. Stewie the skink would be undergoing both physical growth and coloration changes throughout the story, and because this was also a Tell-Me-More story book with accompanying cross-curricular back matter; I wanted to ensure I was maintaining as much biological accuracy as possible.
I envisioned having lots of secondary animals and vegetation to make Stewie’s habitat rich and authentic, so I also needed to familiarize myself with the various animals and plant life that co-exist in his habitat. I then created some sample art for Christie to show at the sales meeting, and after landing the contract, I began thumbnail sketches.
Christie encouraged Lisa and I to get in touch and bounce ideas around. It isn’t always standard for authors and illustrators to discuss a project, but in this case, I think it really helped us achieve something special with this book, it was a fantastic collaboration. It even led to some hilarious “oops” moments...like the time when I made a minor flub and put a moose in one illustration... moose don’t extend quite this far south- oops. Luckily Lisa caught it and it was easily changed to a white-tailed deer. If you look closely on my full- sized sketch:
...you can see the moose, yet in the final plasticine illustration it has been changed to a white-tailed deer:
Once thumbnail sketches were approved I worked up full-sized tight pencil sketches:
Because I work in plasticine, I prefer to create very detailed, tight pencil drawings to show my editor, and ideally make changes at this phase of the project. Each plasticine illustration can take from 20-40+ hours to create, depending on its size and complexity, so it’s much easier to erase a few pencil strokes at this point then to peel off/redo the plasticine final art.
My illustrations are essentially low relief sculptures created in plasticine(modelling clay) and pressed onto illustration board. The final plasticine art is then professionally photographed:
Before I started any final art I premixed the colours, after some initial colour studies, to create a colour chart:
I hang this next to my sketch for quick reference. Then I made up large amounts of my colours so I’d be able to maintain consistency throughout the illustrations. This type of chart comes in handy if I run out of a colour and need to make more. To begin each illustration, I’d smear on plasticine in a thin layer to create the background, then gradually build up and add on, then move onto foreground objects as I go:
(From Debbie: click here for a close-up look at some of the detail in the final illustration)
One of my favorite parts of any illustration is adding the final textures and details to really bring life to the piece. I use a variety of clay sculpting tools but often times I end up using my good ol’ favorites-a large safety pin, toothbrush, toothpick and my fingers. Sometimes I even make my own tools. For Stewie the skink, I made a selection of polymer clay tools that make impressions of reptile scales:
then I used an acrylic gloss to make him glisten.
For intricate parts, I sometimes worked on top of a Ziploc bag that I’d place directly over top of my sketch:
(Note from Debbie: Click here to see details in a bigger version of the woodpecker)
Then I could check to ensure that my sculpted objects were the correct size- plasticine has a tendency to spread and flatten as you work with it, which can be frustrating. So I kept a bowl beside me for my “rejects”...and believe me there were plenty. Faces are especially tricky to get just right. But that’s the great thing about plasticine- it never hardens, so you can just peel off the offensive bits and smoosh ‘em, and start afresh. My kids like to raid the reject bowl (as they call it) and put these bits to use in their own creations.
Having a little kiddo sitting next to me on the floor, working on their own plasticine is one of the best perks about having my art studio in my home. Kids are also the best source of inspiration.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring children's book writers and illustrators?
Lisa: There is so much important advice out there given by far more experienced writers than me – but you’re not going to hear any of it if you’re sitting in your house staring at a cursor on a screen...
Suzanne: ...or working away in your art studio. And I’m even more “green”, LOL but I am always happy to share what I have found helpful on my pursuit to publication.
Lisa: Get out there and meet other writers and creators. The camaraderie and support of a network of peers is invaluable – for information sharing, providing a shoulder to cry on (or a glass to clink with), for forming critique groups and for gaining access to all that wonderful advice.
Suzanne: Yes, you said it Lisa! We creative types tend to be an introverted lot, but it’s so important to put yourself out there and meet others, connect, share ideas and soak up advice from more seasoned author/illustrators. I have found this community of author/illustrators, both online and in person, to be extremely supportive and encouraging
Lisa: In Canada, some good places to start are organizations for children’s writers such as CANSCAIP and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC). Internationally, look into the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Any festivals, trade shows or signings in your area that have anything to do with books can also be useful places to connect with other writers or industry professionals.
Suzanne: The thought of attending a large conference might be utterly terrifying if you are just starting out, so start small. Check out the monthly CANSCAIP meetings, or go to Word on The Street and mingle at your pace, or hop online and get to know the Twitter and Facebook community of illustrators and kidlit writers. I must admit to having a bad case of “imposter syndrome” when I first made the career switch from working in a science research lab, after all I didn’t have an art degree. Could I make a go of it as children’s book illustrator? I decided to be brave and just go for it. The self doubt still creeps up on me some days. But I had to start somewhere. Those first small steps, attending meetings and making initial connections paved the way to bigger conferences and helped me gain my footing as an illustrator.
Joining a critique group is invaluable. We often work in a bubble, isolated, “in the zone” creating, be it painting, sculpting or typing away the hours on our tread-desk. We tend to be our toughest critics which can often lead to self-doubt or worse still the dreaded “analysis paralysis”. Crit groups will not only help you grow as an artist, by pushing you in a direction you may never have considered on your own, but they also give valuable, honest criticism of your work and provide a safe environment to share new ideas, ask those silly questions, and learn about the industry. I belong to a few crit groups, one of illustrators, and another of authors and author/illustrators. Authors and illustrators look at manuscripts (and artwork) from a different perspective, and it can be very helpful to get both types of input, especially if you are interested in writing and illustrating, as I am.
Lisa: A critique group is really important. Even if your writing is already awesome, there is so much to be learned from seeing other perspectives on your work. Engaging with other people’s stories when offering a critique has taught me to see my own work with a more critical eye and helped me to develop further focus and direction in my own writing.
Suzanne: Like I mentioned above, get online and make connections. Joining Twitter, and Facebook is one place to start. Every Thursday at 9pm EST there is a Tweet Chat of kidlit creators, just follow #kidlitart, and check it out. They are a welcoming and fun bunch. Zero2illo is another fantastic resource I found extremely helpful when I was starting up my illustration career. It has many great resources, from setting up your portfolio website to designing a business plan. I also belong to their zero2illo confidential, a crit group of sorts but so much more.
Lisa: If anyone reading this has any further questions, or would like direction to an online critique group for serious children’s writers, they can feel free to contact me through my website. (www.lisadalrymple.com)
Suzanne: Yes, please contact me through my website (suzannedelrizzo.com) if you have any further questions.
Q. What are both of you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you'd like to share?
Suzanne and I have decided to dub the past few months “the Summer of the Plasticine Road Show.” We’ve been taking Skink on the Brink and Suzanne’s fun and interactive plasticine workshops to events all over southern Ontario. For the fall, it looks like the Plasticine Road Show lives on! We were recently at Toronto's Word On The Street; I will be at the Family Resource Centre in Peterborough on September 28th, followed by a signing at Peterborough Chapters; we will be taking part in the Creemore Arts Festival on October 5th.
As for what I’m working on now, my third book, Bubbly Troubly Polar Bear, is due out with Tuckamore Books in October 2013.
I’m also very excited about a picture book with a multicultural theme that I’m working on, in which a young Canadian girl travels around the world with her archeologist parents. Through attending school in Thailand, Peru, Jamaica, Scotland and South Korea, she participates in both the differences and the similarities of daily life. I’m hoping to have her experiences to show, through an eight-year-old's eyes, that, while there are many diverse cultures, there can be a common understanding in the sharing of music, food or something as universal as a game of Hide & Seek.
As for me, I just finished a project for a YA novel cover for The Ehrich Wiesz Chronicles: Demon Gate (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Fall 2013) by Marty Chan. I created the front and back of a steampunk medallion/Infinity Coil in polymer clay and watch components. I also have another Tell-Me-More storybook project in the works with Fitzhenry and Whiteside. I’m working up some of my manuscripts into picture book dummies for submission as well.
Q. How did your book launch go? And how has reception to SKINK ON THE BRINK been so far?
Complete with plasticine activities and a skinktastic chocolate cake:
the official launch of Skink on the Brink was at Story Planet in Toronto, but this summer has actually been a series of exciting launch events. We held a second launch at Roxanne’s Reflections, in my current hometown of Fergus and it was every bit as much fun as the first! Then our favourite event this summer was definitely introducing Skink on the Brink to the Pinery Provincial Park at their annual Savannah Festival.
The Pinery is one of the few places in Canada where the Common Five-lined Skink can be found and it’s the area that inspired the character of Stewie and his story. There was something really special about reading Skink on the Brink right in Stewie’s natural habitat and then working with the kids on their terrific plasticine creations on the very veranda where he’s known to hang out and bask.
The kids at all of our events have been tons of fun to work with and incredibly excited – especially those who managed to catch a glimpse of a real Five-lined Skink in the wild, and Suzanne and I now both have households full of plasticine critters! But the best part is definitely hearing the kids’ enthusiasm for conservation efforts and for protecting skinks and their habitat.
For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.
I'm especially honoured, considering the company.
Thanks, Julie! And thanks to Samantha Berger for the heads-up. :-)
I met Hélène Boudreau through Torkidlit, and have continued to be impressed by this woman's energy and enthusiasm for kidlit/YA online and offline. I interviewed Hélène a couple of years ago about her book, REAL MERMAIDS DON'T WEAR TOE RINGS, and am delighted to be interviewing her again about her picture book, I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN.
Hélène is an Acadian/Métis writer and artist. A native of Isle Madame, Nova Scotia, she writes fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults from her land-locked home in Markham, Ontario, Canada. She has published five non-fiction and nine fiction books for children and young adults, including the picture book I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN (Candlewick) and the tween series REAL MERMAIDS (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky).
Q. What is your writing process?
People are often surprised when I tell them it took me three times longer to write and revise my 400-word picture book, I Dare You Not to Yawn compared to my 50,000 word novels from my Real Mermaids tween series but it is absolutely true. That said, the process for creating both is quite similar. When I speak to school groups about my writing process, I do it in terms of the ABC’s of writing. Of course, it’s not as simple as that sounds but it’s really all about:
Aha! Getting your brilliant idea and developing it. Begin! Putting pen to paper (or pixel to screen) and giving into your story with wild abandon. Complete! Seeing your story through to the end, being open to criticism, and not giving up until it is as perfect as you can make it.
Aha! I tend to get my ideas in stages. Usually, when something strikes me as a great picture book concept, I jot it down in my ‘Ideas’ folder and let it knock around in my noggin for a few weeks or months. I poke at it with a stick, wondering how to attack it, then finally one day the moment seems right and I start writing things down.
For I Dare You Not to Yawn, the idea originated when my daughter was about 4 years old. She would do this thing at the dinner table where she’d let out a great big yawny-YAWN then watch to see what would happen. Of course, then I started yawning. Then so did her sister and her dad. Soon, we were ALL yawning until we finally figured out she was doing it on purpose!
Of course! Yawns are contagious! Perfect idea for a bedtime story.
So, that was the kernel of the story. I thought about that for a long time, wondering how I would approach the concept and turn it into a picture book. Because of the subversive nature of my daughter’s antics, though, I knew I didn’t want it to be just a sweet, lulling, comfy bedtime story. Instead, I wanted to turn the idea on its ear and approach it from a slightly different angle, which gave me the idea to write an anti-bedtime story (i.e. a how-to guide to avoiding bedtime). Of course, the ultimate outcome remains the same—making kids feel sleepy and cozy and ready for bedtime—but I wanted the child to be an accomplice with the narrator in a way where everyone understands where the story is going but happily tags along for the ride.
Begin! Now was the time for research. First, I made a list of any yawn-inducing images I could think of: bed time stories, lullabies, comfy stuffies and yawning baby animals. But that wasn’t enough. Since this book was meant to be a read-aloud, I actually needed to use words that mimicked the action of yawning. Mouth-stretching words like rawr and baabaa and of course yawn itself. This would make the reader open his/her mouth W-I-D-E to actually induce the reflex to yawn while reading.
Then, I started writing. Sections of the manuscript came all at once, other parts took more time but the first draft took a period of a few months, I would say. In the initial stages of writing picture books, I organize my writing in a spreads template, which is typically a 5 x 3 table to represent 15 spreads, which is a typical amount in a 32-page picture book.
Breaking text into spreads like this can really help in studying the pacing of a story. I experiment and layout my text in a 5 x 3 grid and also a 3 x 5 grid to see how the story 'chunks up' (that's a technical term *wink*). The story I’m writing at the moment, for example, works best in a 4 x 4 grid and gives the story its best symmetry.
It's wonderfully useful to start thinking in two-page 'spreads' like this when writing picture books because it lends itself well to the illustration end of things. If you take a look at my illustrator's website for I Dare You Not to Yawn, you'll see what I mean. I’ll wait here while you do that. But, please come back. I’ll miss you…
Serge shows a couple of spreads of his illustrations based on the breakdown of my text. In some spreads like (spread 1/ page 4-5) the text only happens on one page, though the art spreads across two. In another, like (spread 2/ page 6-7) the text and pictures are broken up into two distinct entities, and finally in (spread 8/ page 18-19) both the text and the pictures flow over the two pages.
When submitting my manuscript to my editor, though, I don’t use the table since it makes it hard for her to make editorial comments. I format my text like a typical manuscript and label each spread with headings so she can visualize the page breaks. Example:
Spread 1 (page 4-5)
Text, text, text…
Spread 2 (page 5-6)
Text, text, text…
and so on until
Spread 15 (page 32)
Text, text, text…
I keep my ‘illustration notes' as sidebar ‘comments’ or numbered footnotes so they don't clutter the text.
IMPORTANT: be mindful to only add illustration notes when absolutely necessary (ie when the text has a double meaning, which is not obvious, frex).
Complete! Now that I’ve worked on my text and have revised it within an inch of its life, it’s the time to show my work to a few trusted critique friends, my kids, my husband, my agent and whomever else will be gracious enough to read my story. This is the time I’m most possessive of my words—like showing off your newborn baby to the world and daring anyone to tell you it’s not the most beautiful creature they’ve ever seen. But, of course, I need to get over myself and allow the story to be vulnerable for a while. This is the final step before I send my story to my editor so I want it to be the best I can make it. Do I pout? Lots! But it’s for the greater good and I work on my story for a few more months in this manner.
Finally, it’s time to share my manuscript with my editor. By now, I Dare You Not to Yawn had taken about a year and a half to write and revise in its various iterations. I had shared it with at least a dozen people so I had a lot of opportunity for feedback. You would think, at this point, that the story was pretty much ready to send to the printing press, right?
Not so fast, cowgirl.
Before acquiring the project, my editor and I did a pretty intense round of revisions. I worked for weeks to get it perfect then sent it off again, hoping I’d struck the right chord. I must have done something right(ish) because a few days later my agent called with the news that Candlewick would, indeed, like to publish I Dare You Not to Yawn. That was in Fall 2009.
*cue 76 trombones in a big parade*
Can I haz a picture book published now, plz?
Nuh-uh, hold your horses sum’more!
It actually took 18 more months and 6 major revisions for my editor and I to get the text in shape enough so that Serge Bloch could get started on illustrations. Bless my editor’s heart—she was SO patient with me as we worked on draft after draft (after draft). There were times when I honestly thought I should give back my advance money and call it a draw. But I tried to put my trust in the editorial process and we persisted until I heard the precious words; “It’s ready!”.
And as a special treat (or possibly an exercise to discourage anyone from attempting to publish a picture book, like EVER), my editor has given me permission to share the evolution of that text with you here. The following is the step-by-step process (with some, but not all, of the line edit comments and her general editorial comments as footnotes) of how the text changed over that period of a year and a half. There were still a few tweaks after this once we had the context of Serge’s illustrations but you get the picture.
In total, from editorial acquisition in fall of 2009 to revisions and illustration to publication in spring of 2013, it was nearly a four year process.
Was it worth it? Totally!
But, hopefully, now you can understand why it took me longer to write, revise, and publish this 400-word picture book compared to my 50,000 word Real Mermaids novels. *wink*
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers?
No matter how good you think your idea is—the next one could be better.
It is so important to be constantly generating ideas as a picture book author because, for example, of the thirty or so picture book manuscripts I have in various stages of development on my hard drive, only two (so far) have been actually published. Those are not great odds but the more you create the better chance you have of success. I often see authors fall in love with ONE idea and work and work and work on that idea at the expense of creating new stories. I admire their tenacity but it might not be the best approach at hitting on not only a good idea but a marketable idea. I try to think of those other 28 ideas on my hard drives as prototypes. Good but not GREAT. Keep it fresh and keep it moving, people!
No matter how good you think your book is—it can be better.
There are so many things authors can do to raise their game. My writing improved by leaps and bounds when I joined a critique group. Revision, revision, revision! It’s the process of sculpting away the excess clay to reveal your masterpiece inside. In my case, though, I can only take my story to a certain point on my own (maybe the ‘good’ point?) but need objective feedback to help take things from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Reading many, many, many books in the picture book genre to get a sense of how the pros do it and reading books on ‘craft’ can be useful as well. Going to conferences, reading articles and joining professional author associations are a wealth of information as well.
It’s not one thing, it’s everything.
No matter how unfair and just-plain-wrong the comments from your critique partner/agent/ editor seem to be—there is usually truth in every critique. It’s your job to pull out the ‘why’ of their reactions.
This can be so frustrating. Just recently, my agent critiqued a picture book manuscript of mine and while she loved the overall concept she thought my ‘punch line’ in spread #13 could use more punch and she gave me a potential example of how I could spice things up. “Are you kidding me?” was my first response, “my idea is MUCH more brilliant! Why can’t she see that??”. (LOL, sorry super agent, Lauren…)
So, I sulked for a while (three weeks, to be exact), asked two other people for their advice in the meantime (one who agreed with her, which made me sulk even more) then got over myself and tried to look at my agent’s comments in a less egotistical/prima donna manner. Now, finally, I am realizing that even though my agent had given me an example of how the story could be better, that was merely a jumping off point for me to push myself and get the story to the next level.
Was she right after all? Begrudgingly, yes. There is a problem with the punch line. My agent was merely pointing that out. Now, it’s my job to figure out how to fix it.
Q. What are you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you'd like to share?
At this very moment, I’m working on revisions for the fourth book in the Real Mermaids series. I’m also working on a new picture book, which I hope will be a companion picture book to I Dare You Not to Yawn but that remains to be seen—if only I can sort out spread #13!
Author @HeleneBoudreau shares revision/editorial notes for 6 drafts of pb I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN: http://bit.ly/yawnbook (Tweet this)
Revision process = sculpting away excess clay to reveal masterpiece within. @HeleneBoudreau tips: http://bit.ly/16buCyn (Tweet this)
For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.
I always love hearing about interesting and unique ways (without being spammy) that children's book authors and illustrators have for promoting their work, so was intrigued by Sophie Blackall's promo effort:
The package above was mailed out to about 100 chlidren's book professionals, handmade by award-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall to help promote THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE, a new picture book about a Parisian postman at the turn of the 20th century, written by Matthew Olshan and illustrated by Blackall.
What a wonderful package to receive in the mail!
Find out what was inside each package by reading the full article in Publishers Weekly.
I was intrigued by this New York Times article, which talks about how Kindoma's new Storytime app lets grandparents and others read bedtime books remotely to children.
Another possible application: authors doing remote readings for small groups of students? Or larger groups, if the iPad is hooked up to a larger display.
I haven't yet tried the app, but the catch is that the app has to have the book in its library. Once the tech is streamlined and if successful, however, perhaps publishers would want to partner with Kindoma to make titles available.
I first met John Martz at a National Cartoonist Society party in Toronto a few years ago and am also a fan of his popular illustration and cartooning blog Drawn. In addition to his professional comics work, John is the illustrator of several picture books including Dear Flyary from Kids Can Press, written by Dianne Young, and most recently he adapted the classic Abbott & Costello routine Who’s on First? into a picture book from Quirk Books. His first graphic novel, Destination X, will be released in May from Nobrow Press. John is also the founding editor of the popular illustration and cartooning blog Drawn.
Q. How did this project begin?
I was approached by the publisher, Quirk Books. I got the email while I was sitting in a coffee shop in Wellington, New Zealand on my honeymoon, which was a nice addition to the trip. The book was published in cooperation with the estates of Abbott and Costello, so there were no copyright hurdles that needed jumping, at least not in regards to my duties -- the material was already approved by the time I was brought aboard.
Q. What was your illustration process for WHO'S ON FIRST?
The manuscript for the book was essentially the script from the original Who's on First? comedy routine verbatim, although there were a few things removed or edited just for simplicity and kid-friendliness. Because the material is completely dialogue-driven, it was a given that the story would be presented in comic-book-style with speech bubbles.
My first task was breaking down the dialogue into pages and spreads. I printed out the script and cut out the different pieces of dialogue so I could manually move the bits of paper about until I had figured out the optimal breakdown from which to start thumbnailing. They took up the entire floor of my studio. The illustrations were created digitally, but this physical cut-and-paste way of figuring out pacing and is much easier when you can just move stuff around at will and stand back to look at everything.
The process was pretty straightforward then -- I presented the publisher with a thumbnailed version of the book, I incorporated their feedback into the first draft, and then after an additional round of feedback, I completed the final illustrations. As for character design, I was told I didn't need to worry about making the characters look like Abbott and Costello themselves, and that the characters should be animals.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring children's book illustrators?
This is only my second picture book, so I'm still a relative newcomer to the field. Attending comics shows like the Toronto Comics Arts Festival and SPX in Maryland has been a great way to meet and interact with publishers and fellow artists. My first picture book Dear Flyary, written by Dianne Young, was the direct result of meeting my editor while manning my table at TCAF.
I'm still learning a lot about self-promotion. I'm a little leery of the hard sell online because it contradicts the types of artists and writers I tend to follow on Twitter and social media. Genuineness goes a long way online, and I prefer to follow creative types whose updates aren't just a stream of self-promoting ads. I end up supporting the artists, instead, that provide me with a real sense of personality and likemindedness who produce great work. I think it's a delicate balancing act between promoting your work and trying not being a carnival barker.
My method is to just be myself online, and develop the trust and goodwill with the small-but-growing audience I have, and to hope that when I have new work to share, that my friends and fans and readers will be receptive and want to share it as well.
Q. What are you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you'd like to share?
I just finished my third picture book, Black and Bittern Was Night by Robert Heidbreder, which will be out from Kids Can Press in time for Halloween, and I have a science fiction graphic novel called Destination X that will be out from Nobrow Press in May, debuting at TCAF. A collection of my webcomic Machine Gum will also be debuting at TCAF from La Pastèque.
Where you can find more info about John Martz:
Also see other Inkygirl Interviews.
Tara Lazar's Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) starts today!
The goal: to come up with 30 picture book ideas in 30 days.
Even if you're not ready to join the challenge but are still interested in reading the daily guest posts about writing, illustrating and publishing picture books (hey, I'm one of the guest bloggers), you should follow Tara Lazar's blog.
Writing & Illustrating A Picture Book For Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers (Part 2: Brainstorming, Story Pitch, Thumbnail Assignment)
Continuing my series on working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers on two new books...
(Summary: After I finished illustrations for I'M BORED, Simon & Schuster BFYR offered me two blank contracts. This series is about my own experience working with S&S BFYR on my two new books; if you're interested in the process for I'M BORED, please see How I'M BORED Was Created: A Guide For Young Readers. Neither of these series are meant to The Definitive Guide of how a picture book is created. Your own publishing experience may differ, depending on your situation and people involved. Thanks for following along! -- Debbie)
And here is what has happened so far:
I brainstormed picture book ideas.
I've been compiling picture book ideas for a while now, inspired by Paula Yoo's NaPiBoWriWee, Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo and #KidLitArt's Picture Book Dummy Challenge. I've turned some of these into picture book manuscripts.
What I discovered: it's easy to come up with ideas for picture books. The challenge: to come up with picture book ideas that are different from anything else already out there.
This is one of the common misconceptions held by newbie picture book writers, I find: that their story is unique. I still consider myself a newbie picture book writer, by the way, so I speak from experience.
Child nervous about their first day at school but then finds out another child feels the same / makes new friends / discovers it's not so bad after all? Done.
Child has trouble making new friends because they are too shy / insecure / mean / stubborn / family just moved? Done.
Child loses a beloved object / pet / toy and is totally distraught but then formulates plan / enlists help / searches everywhere? Done.
Child having a horrible day where nothing goes right but then takes action & everything turns out ok? Done.
Child resents the fact that he is always overlooked / ignored and decides to do something about it? Done.
Child hates doing something that parents always want her to do so finds a way around it but then discovers why it was a good idea? Done.
Child resents older or younger sibling so decides to run away / get rid of sibling somehow but starts missing the sibling despite himself and reunites? Done.
Child...well, you get the idea.
The bottom line: It's very tough to come up with a story that is totally unique.
I tried to figure out how to make my story stand out in the marketplace.
At this point, I can already imagine some of you shaking your fingers at me and saying, "Just focus on making a good story. Worry about the marketing/publishing part later."
However, I'm already assuming that having a good story is an essential. My end goal, however, is to not only get the book published but to have the book sell well. If the story is too much like others already out there, a publisher is less likely to want to take a risk on it. And if the book doesn't sell well, then the publisher is less likely to offer me more contracts.
So yes, there needs to be a good story BUT I also want to help an editor convince their sales team that the book should be published.
An aside: I've already gone through this several times with my novels for young people, in which various editors liked my story enough to take to the next step, but then the projects were nixed by sales/marketing. It's one reason I spent way more time in the plotting/outlining process for my current YA mss before starting to actually write it (and it got nominated for an SCBWI Sue Alexander "Most Promising For Publication Award"! It didn't win...but still! Now I just need to finish it).
So yes, I was discouraged. But then I thought, hold on. Surely I can't be the only one despairing about finding a unique story idea. And there are new picture books coming out all the time!
And that brings to me to another essential part of my "newbie picture book writer/illustrator" self-education:
I read many, many picture books.
Since the career-changing events of 2010, I've been immersing myself in the world of picture books. I have no children and hadn't really read many picture books since my nephews and nieces grew past that stage.
Once Simon & Schuster BFYR offered me my first picture book illustration contract, that all changed. I started going to the library and local bookstores every week to read as many picture books as I could. I read everything I could get my hands on -- old and new.
I looked at both the text and the illustrations, and how they enhanced each other. I didn't always like the picture books I read, but tried to analyze exactly WHY I didn't like them. And when I really enjoyed a picture book, then I'd reread it and ask myself similar questions: WHY did I like it?
I needed to figure out a unique spin for my stories.
I looked especially closely at new releases. Obviously these publishers had faith in these books, so what was it about the stories that made the publishers willing to invest money into these projects? The answer: a unique spin. In almost every case, the basic story was enhanced with a framework made unique in either the setting, characters, voice, format or other aspect.
Once I realized this, I went over my list of picture book stories and started working on expanding some of them into full manuscripts with the whole "unique spin" aspect in mind.
But still, I wasn't completely happy with any of them yet.
I realized that I needed to get my head into "pitch" mode.
When I last visited Simon & Schuster BFYR in NYC to talk about I'M BORED promotion, Justin asked me if I had any picture book stories to show him. I hesitated, saying that I had written about 25 picture book manuscripts but wasn't yet happy with any of them.
Justin interrupted my babbling excuses and suggested that I needed to change my mindset. Having worked with S&S BFYR on I'm Bored, I already had my foot in the door. Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers was my publisher. He was my editor. So how about I pick out 4-5 of what I considered my best stories and send them to him, even if I didn't think they were perfect yet?
Ok, I admit I was pretty clueless. I had figured that even though I had illustrated a book for S&S BFYR, that I was still starting from scratch when it came to submitting my own stories. And that if they said no, that was it.
I was wrong.
Anyway, I promised Justin I'd send something very soon. Of course I was STILL paranoid about sending stories that I considered early drafts, so I enlisted the help of my MiG Writers critique group for some feedback and suggestions for tweaks.
Then...I took a deep breath and send my stories to Justin.
He picked one he thought had the most potential. I'm very happy he picked the idea that he did; of all the stories I sent him, this is going to be the most fun to draw!
We had a phone meeting about my story, with editorial assistant Dani Young sitting in. It was a TRULY EXCELLENT phone meeting. I was all "omigod, you're absolutely RIGHT" and "YES! I love that!!" and Justin was all "it's all right there in your story" (I just hadn't seen it).
What Justin was able to do, which I hadn't, was to identify the essence of my picture book as well as see the potential of what it could be. AND he was able to communicate that to me.
By the end of the phone call, I was incredibly inspired and eager to get started.
THE NEXT STEP: I need to show my story visually, in thumbnails.
Justin asked me to forget about working on the text but just to focus on figuring out how to tell my story visually in very rough thumbnail sketches -- knowing that will help determine my text. I'm not going to worry about character sketches or detailed illustrations yet.
To do this, I've created a template which fits on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. In case any of you would like to use it for your own picture book planning, I've provided a print-ready PDF version (click thumbnail below):
There seem to be many different templates for book dummies out there, but I wanted to make sure I was using one that Justin approved since I'll be printing out quite a few copies for me to scribble on. Justin said the endpapers are separate for a 32-page book, so I'm not going to worry about those for now.
I've filled up nearly a dozen of these sheets with my scribbled thumbnails already. Working out a story this way is GREAT for exposing bad pacing and other storytelling problems; I've already discovered that the mss I sent Justin just doesn't work. I'm working non-digitally for these sketches using just a pile of printed sheets, a mechanical pencil and a big eraser. The eraser is getting a LOT of use. :-)
Even if you don't draw but are just writing a picture book story, I still recommend you try this method. Just use stick figures or a scribbled phrase (e.g. "Sam throws marmite at Emma" etc.).
Other resources you might find helpful:
If you know any other resources that could help picture book writer/illustrators in the early creation stages, feel free to post below!
There is no set schedule to this blog post series. I'll only post in the series if I have something useful or interesting to say. To make it easier to follow this particular thread, I'll tag related posts with "pbcreation."
I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new series of blog posts:
As some of you may already know, I'm writing and illustrating my very first picture book for Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers: I'm going to call this Picture Book X until I have an official title. I'm going to be blogging about the process of creating Picture Book X, from start to finish, in Inkygirl. An aside: if you're curious about my blog posts about the creation of I'M BORED, new picture book by Michael Ian Black that I was asked to illustrate, I recommend you follow my I'M BORED Scrapbook. That blog also details how I started working with Simon & Schuster BFYR.
Because my book is still in its early stages, I won't be talking about its content at all -- not even its title, which has yet to be finalized.
Instead, I'm going to be talking about the process with a perspective that I hope will help aspiring picture book writer/illustrators. I also figure this blog post series may be of interest to those curious about what it's like to work with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.
I'll be posting about the process, what I'm learning, what happens at various steps and what they mean, the people I interact with at S&S and what they do. I'll be sharing some of the templates I create for myself to help with workflow, plus give you a peek of what goes on inside Simon & Schuster BFYR later on in the process, after I've handed in my finals.
Keep in mind that this is going to be based on just one particular project and from one perspective (mine). Your book project may have been -- or could be -- very different, depending on the circumstances and the people involved.
My editor, Justin Chanda, has given me the go-ahead to blog about the process (thanks, Justin!). I worked with Justin on I'M BORED illustration discussions, but this will be the first time I've worked with him on story text.
I haven't yet been assigned an art director; the project is still in its very early stages.
There is no set schedule to this blog post series. I'll only post in the series if I have something useful or interesting to say. To make it easier to follow this particular thread, I'll tag related posts with "pbcreation." Whenever possible, I'll also be including related resources to help you find additional info on the topic, and will also be encouraging you all to share your own experiences.
I hope you'll join me! :-)
Header photo credits: My photo - Beckett Gladney, Justin's photo - Sonya Sones
Book Giveaway: Post a comment below to be entered in a prize draw for a copy of Lee's 101 Ways To Bug Your Friends and Enemies and a buggy doodle from Debbie.
Way back when I started pursuing getting my novels published, Lee Wardlaw offered to read what I had written and give me feedback. It was first time I had received a critique from a professional in the industry, and I was blown away by her generosity, encouragement and advice.
I worked hard on revamping my manuscript and after another round or two, Lee passed my work on to her agent, Ginger Knowlton. Ginger took me on as a client! I'll always be grateful to Lee for that early encouragement and for taking that time with me.
Lee has written over two dozen books for young people and has won many awards and award nominations for her work. Most recently: 2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award (for Won Ton), 2012 NCTE/CLA Notable Children's books in the English Language Arts, 2012 Best Children's Book Award - Los Angeles Book Festival, 2012 ALSC Notable Children's Book , 2012 CCBC Choices as well as nominations for the 2012-13 Chickadee (Maine) Reader's Choice Award, Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Award and Rhode Island Reader's Choice Award.
You can find more info about Lee and her work at:
and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/leewardlaw
Q. How did you make your first sale?
Plucked from the Slush Pile! Yep, it happens. And I will never, E.V.E.R., forget the day I received that first acceptance. I screamed. I babbled. I called my mom. I might’ve even kissed the mailman…
Q. How did you get your agent?
I met her at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, just a couple of days after I sold that first book. I hadn’t yet written a feigned nonchalant “Why, yes, if you’d like to publish my novel, by all means please feel free to do so” response to the editor, because I was still too busy screaming and babbling. So the agent stepped in and negotiated the contract for me. We worked together for about three years; in that time, she sold two more YA novels and a nonfiction book of mine.
When I decided I wanted to challenge myself by writing picture books, we parted ways. (She specialized in the teen and adult markets.) Over the next few months, I asked every author I met – at school visits, book festivals, SCBWI functions, conferences, etc. – which agents they would recommend. Again and again I heard: “Ginger Knowlton”. She was newish to the agenting world, but she worked at a highly respected New York agency, was learning the ropes from Marilyn Marlow (the Grand Dame of children’s book agents), and had a background in Early Childhood Education. Sold! I queried her with a couple of manuscripts, and she called not long after that, saying she’d like to represent me. I screamed. I babbled. I called my mom. I kissed my husband. (Our new mailman wasn’t nearly as cute.) Ginger and I have worked together now for almost 24 years. She’s stuck by me through thick and thin and anorexic. I adore her.
None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. If I feel ‘comfortable’ when I’m writing, then I know I’m not challenging myself.
Instead of ‘comfort’, I prefer to experience what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls flow. In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Dr. C. (didn’t want to attempt that spelling twice!) describes flow as an intense focus on an activity – a concentration so deep that you’re unaware of yourself, your surroundings, of time passing. You see flow most often in Montessori schools. There’s an intense joy on the face of a young child who is wholly immersed in tackling and mastering a task. I experience flow when I’m writing something I love, whether it’s a poem or a picture book, a novel or nonfiction. It happens a lot, too, when I’m creating humorous dialogue for my middle grade characters. Their conversations just, uh, flow…
Q. How much time (or percentage of your time?) do you spend promoting?
In 2011, I had two new books published: a picture book, Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, and the third novel in my middle grade series, 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies. It had been almost seven years (!) since I’d last had a new book out, so I really felt invisible. To offset that, I spent the majority of 2011 promoting like crazy.
My year-end totals were: 18 bookstore events, 17 school visits, 7 speaking engagements, 3 Skype visits, 3 blog interviews, 3 TV/radio/print interviews, 3 articles written, and 2 miscellaneous events. Miles driven: 3,500+. WHEW! I did all my own coordinating and publicity for these events, too, so that meant creating/printing/mailing flyers, sending info to schools, contacting newspapers, magazines, events websites, etc., etc. It was a huge job. Won Ton went into a third printing in less than a year, so I have to think the effort was worth it!
Usually, though, I’d say I spend 50% of my time writing and 50% promoting. The latter is usually through school visits, which I love. Put a microphone in my hand, and I turn into a total ham - - with cloves and brown sugar on top! But the balancing act is a constant struggle. It’s great fun working with and talking to my readers…but sometimes I’d really rather be at home, writing.
Q. Do you work on more than one project at a time? If so, how do you manage your time?
Eek. No. If I’m working on a novel, that’s really all I can handle. I tend to juggle a lot of characters and subplots, and I do a lot of research for each book, which means a full-to-overflowing brain. Ditto for my office, which needs shoveling out frequently. Add another novel or picture book to that mix, and I might implode - -or end up on that TV show “Hoarders”.
Sometimes, I can work on a couple of picture books at the same time, but that’s only in the early stages of each, where I’m mainly banging out ideas or plot lines.
Because I have A.D.H.D., I tend to get easily distracted. If I’m distracted, I don’t finish projects. So it’s best if I stick with one project at a time. That being said, I’ve learned that I need to be distracted now and then, otherwise I get bored and don’t finish projects. (Kind of a Catch-22.) So I treat my brain by entertaining it with writing in the mornings and promo stuff in the afternoons. The variety helps.
Q. What are your writing habits? (wordcount goals? rituals? favourite place? etc.)
If I’m working on poetry or a picture book, I need to use a pen and notebook, and I need to sit somewhere comfy: curled up on the sofa, outside on the deck, etc. But if I’m writing a novel, I MUST work in my office. I’ve never done well working outdoors or in coffee shops. (Too many distractions.) My office is painted and decorated in shades of green (teal, seafoam, jade, forest), which calms me so I can focus.
1. A Mac. Forever and always. And it must have a 27” screen.
2. An Aeron chair (I have neck and lower back issues)
3. An ergonomic keyboard (wrist issues)
4. Natural lighting or a desk lamp with a 100-watt incandescent light bulb (government intervention issues. I’m stockpiling my 100’s! I hate CFLs. They make me squint.)
5. Plenty of protein snacks. (hypoglycemia issues)
6. A glass of iced tea with extra lemon, mint leaves and Splenda.
7. A cat or two curled up on my printer or on the floor heat vent.
I start work early-ish: 8:00 a.m. (I prefer between 5 and 6 a.m., but with a husband and teenaged son at home, those times aren’t optimal.) I write until noon; take an hour break; then go back to work until 2:40 when I leave to pick up my son at the high school.
My habits have changed over the years. In the past, my minimum goal was three hours or three pages, whichever came first. Now, if I’m working on a novel, I’ll set a different goal for myself every day, depending on where I am in the story. If I think I can rough out two or three major scenes in a particular chapter, then that’s my goal. If I know it’s going to be a particularly difficult chapter, for whatever reason, then I may set a goal of writing only one scene.
It’s that variety that keeps me from getting distracted!
When working on 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies, I was really having a hard time focusing. (For some people, like me, ADHD gets worse asyou get older.) So instead of writing the book sequentially, I allowed myself to hop around, writing chapters out of order. That was great fun, and it kept me motivated.
Q. How much prep do you do before you start writing?
Whether it’s a picture book or a novel, I write pages and pages about all the central characters, asking myself questions about who they are, what they want, why they want it, how they’re prevented from getting it, etc. It’s crucial to know what motivates your characters – what values move them to action – and why. Otherwise, you won’t know how they’ll act or react in every situation you put them in.
Each book also involves research. Take, for example, WON TON – A CATTALE TOLD IN HAIKU, the story of a wary shelter cat and the boy who adopts him. Now I know cats. My first spoken word was ‘kitty’ and I’ve shared my life with probably 30 cats over the years. BUT, I still needed to research cat behavior, specifically that of adult cats who’ve spent most of their lives in an animal shelter. I researched shelters, too, and how best to introduce a cat to a new home. (I thought it important for the book to be accurate so shelters would get behind it, maybe even carry it in their gift shops.) I also researched haiku - - American haiku is different from Japanese haiku - - and that’s when I realized I’d actually written the book in senryu! That was an important distinction for me to be awareof if I wanted elementary schools to use the book as a teaching supplement.
After the character work and the research, then I do a rough outline of the book. I ALWAYS know how the story is going to end before I start writing. For me, writing a novel is like taking a trip. You don’t just get in the car and start driving willy-nilly. (Well, in real life you might, if you’re the adventurous sort, but if you do that in fiction, you’ll end up with stream of consciousness stuff, not a novel.)
Before you back out of the garage, you need a destination and you need a road map. The road map is the plot outline. My outlines tend to change along the way, taking little detours here and there, picking up extra passengers (characters), maybe getting a flat tire (more conflict!), but I make sure the basic road map stays the same. That way, I and my story get to The End in one piece.
Q. What's the biggest mistake that new writers tend to make?
Ha. I don’t know. There are so many from which to choose! Not having read a children’s book since before the invention of dirt…not having been around children since being children themselves…worrying too much about contracts and agents and merchandising instead of focusing on their craft…submitting stories that aren’t stories at all, but incidents or anecdotes…the list goes on.
My biggest mistake, way back when, was writing picture books that featured inanimate, anthropomorphic characters. Kind of like The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein – but without his wit, intelligence, heart and drawing talents! My early picture books were awful. Of course, I didn’t know that then…
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers?
1. Read, read, read, read, read picture books. Pick out your favorites and take them apart, analyzing what you like about them and why; what about them resonates within you; what’s their unique tone, their style; what makes their characters fresh; what is special about their voice; and what gives them enough appeal to be read and re-read up to 500 times;
2. Take a poetry-writing class. Learning how to distill a story’s essence; using rhythmic, evocative language and vivid imagery; creating something that cries to be read aloud - - all of that is what you need to write poetry and picture books. I don’t think it’s an accident that WON TON is my most successful picture book. I started writing it while taking a poetry class from children’s book author and poet Ellen Kelley.
Q. For your picture books, how much interaction did you have (if any) with the illustrator?
None. Well, I might send them an email, introducing myself and saying I’m looking forward to the publication of ‘our’ book. But that’s it. Typically, the author and illustrator don’t collaborate on a picture book project. The author writes the story, the editor picks the illustrator, then the illustrator draws the pictures.
People are always surprised by this. But it makes sense. I wouldn’t want an illustrator standing over me, saying: “Gosh, I don’t know how to draw cats. Could you make your story about dogs, instead?” And I’m sure an illustrator wouldn’t want me dictating to him/her what kind of style, medium, etc., should be used. Of course, this means you have to have an extremely savvy editor, one with a clear vision of what kind of art will best complement and enhance the story.
Q. What are three things you wish you had known when you first started your writing career?
1. That rejections aren’t personal
2. That an editor’s suggestions aren’t set in stone
3. How much publicity and promotion I’d have to do!
Q. Any news about current or upcoming projects you'd like to share?
RED, WHITE & BOOM! (Holt, ages 2-6, illustrated by Huy Voun Lee) will debut in April. It’s a rhyming picture book about the ways families from different cultures celebrate our country’s independence.
I’m finishing up a sequel to WON TON…and making notes for 101 WAYS TO BUG YOUR BROTHER AND SISTER…and I have a cool idea for a nonfiction project (but I’m not saying what it is!).
Also see other Inkygirl Interviews.
I enjoyed meeting Susan Hawk at the SCBWI annual conference in NYC, and I just found out she has a new blog!
Susan worked in children's book marketing for over 15 years, most recently as the Marketing Director at Henry Holt Books For Young Readers. Before that: Library Marketing Director at Penguin Young Readers Group. While at Penguin, she also helped acquired projects for Dutton Editorial.
From her About page:
I handle books for children exclusively: picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA, fiction and non-fiction. In middle-grade and YA, I’m looking for something that makes me laugh out loud, I’m a sucker for bittersweet, and I can’t resist a character that comes to understand how perfectly imperfect the world is. I want a book to stay with me long after I finish reading, and I’m looking for powerful, original writing. I’m open to mystery, scifi, humor, boy books, historical, contemporary (really any genre). My favorite projects live at the intersection of literary and commercial. In non-fiction I’m looking for books that relate to kid’s daily lives and their concerns with the world. In picture books, I’m looking particularly for author-illustrators, succinct but expressive texts, and characters as indelible as my childhood favorites Ferdinand, Madeline, George and Martha.
Where you can find more info about Susan:
Her Susan Says blog: http://susanhawk.blogspot.com
On Twitter: @susanhawk
Also, Heather Ayris Burnell recently interviewed Susan Hawk about picture books: why she represents picture books, what she looks for, common submission mistakes, and preferred word count.
I have too many picture book ideas (I partly blame Tara Lazar & her PiBoIdMo 2011 month :-) and have been working on half a dozen picture book story texts over the past year: rewriting a zillion times & dumping ideas that just don't work. Anyone who thinks picture book stories are easy to write is NUTS. Or rather...it's easy to write a picture book. It's very difficult to write a GOOD picture book. It makes me appreciate Michael Ian Black's wonderful I'M BORED story all that much more.
Anyway, I've stayed sane by plowing ahead and doing drawings for picture books that don't exist yet. Less pressure, helps me improve my craft, and who knows? I may turn some of these into full-blown projects someday. I've also been reading Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books, Harold Underdown's Complete Idiot's Guide To Publishing Children's Books, and Cheryl B. Klein's Second Sight: An Editor's Talks On Writing, Revising & Publishing Books For Children And Young Adults for inspiration.
Anyway, I decided to do the drawing at the top of this post because I liked the pig character in one of my recent Daily Drawings (see http://DebbieOhi.com for more of my Daily Drawings):
I'm participating in KidLitArt.com's Picture Book Dummy challenge for inspiration as I continue to work on my own picture book stories AND continuing to read as many good picture books as I can. Any recommendations for well-written picture books?