Q: Why is it I never seem to have good endings for the picture book stories I write?
A: This is a classic case of FOGK (Fear Of Going Kaput). It’s a fear of death thing for a writer based on the fact that no picture book can have too dark an outcome. What’s the solution? Well if you can’t have the main character die (it’s a picture book after all!) then have them happily go to bed (it’s a picture book after all!). Other choices include: happy to go to school, happy to eat their dinner and happy to walk the dog. (Hey, that last one is mine! No stealing it!)
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I’m just finishing the cover on the first picture book I wrote and illustrated. It will be out in the autumn of 2014 from Candlewick Press.
Let me say this about book covers – they are the toughest element in the book making process for me. This is no surprise because they have proven to be enormously impactful on a books’ success, so a lot of different people at a publisher have input. The covers are important not just for consumer sales in the retail environment but also when the publishers show the books to the retail buyers.
I used to believe that covers were pretty straight forward. But the more I tackle picture book covers the more I realize they have a unique set of communication needs. This is due in part to the duel audience of young reader books. They need to communicate to both adult book buyers and young non-reader book ‘readers’. A few books back I had done a cover I was pretty happy with and I got feedback from the marketing department on my design/illustration ( it should be noted that with picture books the cover is most often a collaboration between the illustrator and an art director or book designer ) and you know what, they were right! I know artists are always supposed to be upset and willing to fight the fight against ‘marketing’ department advice, and I have done that from time to time, but on this project that had a great POV that I hadn’t thought of. And we created a really good cover because of the notes.
So I’m open to plenty of discussion when it comes to the cover. And plenty of revisions, as long as I think it’s headed in a good direction.
One of my favorite covers from a book I illustrated is for The Book That Eats People. This was conceived of by the designer and editor I believe after we made a few runs trying out different approaches. The designer had the idea to make our names look like sharp teeth. What a great touch!
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I was talking to a writer friend who is working on a manuscript. She’s in that part of the writing process called rewriting. You know, the part where we spend most of our time. At least I do. I stare at the same sentence for 2 hours. And since I write kids books the sentence isn’t: “Now is the winter of our discontent, / made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
I’m writing prose like, “Lily got all huffy and grabbed floppy rabbit back.” But it’s no easier to get it right. At least for me.
Anyhoo, my writer friend got notes from an editor on her book (a early reader chapter book is how I would describe it). This isn’t a manuscript that the editor bought, but the editor made notes on what they thought would make the manuscript an easier sell. That’s a great break. These days, most editors don’t have the time to do this.
My friend is irritated at what she views as additional, unnecessary work. I understand her frustration. It’s a bummer that our every impulse at the keyboard isn’t perfect.
I have also discovered, much to my unhappiness, that writing, rewriting and editing, does not work on an 8-hour, Monday through Friday schedule. The 8 hours you spend on one project may get you a great revision. But that same 8 hours on another project may produce only a few new sentences. I’ve read that the more you write and edit, the faster and better you get at it. I don’t think I’ve experienced that yet.
This is not an ideal world and sometimes we have to hit a schedule that precludes spending another week or two, or a year to rewrite. So having some time to actually concentrate just on the details is wonderful. Once it’s sold and you are on a deadline, things get dramatic. Deadlines are sneaky things; always laying low and quiet until they jump up screaming and run at you, faces painted blue like a warrior from Braveheart.
But I hope my friend realizes the great value she received from the editor who took time to offer notes. Rewriting is frustrating. And in this era we seem to believe that anything can be finished in an afternoon with a really fast smartphone. In my experience that isn’t true.
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When I am not walking the dogs, trying to avoid cooking or getting speeding tickets in West Linn I sit at my desk and try and write books.
This should be the great pleasure in my life, no? I have strived and worked towards having this opportunity for many years. I feel increadibly fortunate to be doing it. I continue to do other types of work as well: design, sculpture, animation and illustration, but having had two picture books acquired as well as writing and drawing a graphic novel for Chronicle Books, I was thrilled to actually get results from all the hundreds, if not thousands, of stories that I have written that never made it off my monitor. In fact, many never even got an ending. At least a good one.
But sitting here writing ‘books’ it feels pretty much like work. It IS work. I’m reminded every time I feel like walking away from what I am writing. What I am TRYING to write. It’s challenging and can be creative, and fun and I feel amazingly lucky to be getting the time to pursue this. But it’s also good-old-fashioned, irritating, stress inducing work.
Now, back to work.
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Back in December of 2011 (so long ago, I was but a young lad…) I wrote a long winded post headlined “Can graphic novels make you smarter?” It discussed how combining the act of reading and looking at pictures to absorb a story activate different parts of the brain. You can read that post linked here.
At the time I hadn’t looked at the issue from the perspective of two interesting words which are usually used in the field of linguistics but have great resonance for the issue of using pictures and words together to tell stories.
Diachronic is a term for something happening over time. and ‘synchronic‘ refers to something that happens at a specific point in time.
In linguistics diachronic and synchronic have been defined as relating to the issues of examining language from a historical POV vs. a topological one. But I am interested in the broader meaning of the terms.
The big idea is that you gain meaning from language as it unfolds through time e.g. “Once upon a time there was a bear and a monkey who were best friends.”
Whereas you can absorb the impact from an illustration immediately e.g. an illustration showing a bear and monkey playing video games together.
Of course you can study the illustration, and gain more from it, but when you combine the experience of reading a story using words and have part of that story use visual imagery the brain is doing some extra work to build a larger meaning and context. Contradictions can arise and new levels of similarity can be gained.
I began to realize that a graphic novels and picture books activate different processes for a reader. And perhaps part of the intrigue and interest is that the brain is conceptualizing the narrative in different ways because of how we understand language vs. an illustration. (See this intriguing article from Science Daily about how a brain understands images) We read and gain understanding through time, while the image not only informs us in one ‘blast’ but they physically use different parts of the brain to gather meaning.
The brain likes to be surprised in a narrative. And by combining the use of language and image it’s a more dynamic experience.
I’m not saying that the more elements you add to a narrative creation the better it is. But it may explain why a graphic novel or a picture book brings such great pleasure and satisfaction to a reader.
I also suspect that better understanding how we experience words and pictures in different ways can help illustrators and writers better exploit what makes each form interesting and dynamic.
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I’m very excited to have finished up illustrating a wonderful new book by George Shannon.
Of course it won’t be out for another 12 months or so. But that’s publishing. It feels kind of like those astronauts working on the space shuttle where it takes 20 minutes for them to catch a floating wrench.
But it WILL be out and that’s the best part. Here’s a sample image. I’ll talk about it more when the book finds its way to stores. But here’s an image from the witches favorite cafe. Click to see it a little bigger.
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The second time I was going to write a picture book (I’ll talk about my first attempt at writing a picture book some other time. When we need a really good laugh…) I clearly remember clearing an afternoon of everything else, getting a sketchbook with doodles and ideas, sitting at my desk, bringing up a new Microsoft Word document on my computer, positioning my hands over my keyboard so I could start typing…and…and…sitting there.
I wrote nothing of any commercial value that day. I don’t most days. But the difference is now I write something everyday and don’t have expectations that what I will write will magically transform into a 32 page picture book. Most of what I write is, to be less than polite, sucky. (That’s a word used in the trade. Strictly a professional term.) And only the tiniest fraction is commercially viable. I wish I could improve my batting average. (I hate sports analogies…)
But I often think about sitting at my desk in Pasadena trying to write one on demand. I wanted to start work on it immediately. You know, things to do, places to go. And I had a million ideas. And just about 1 million of them wouldn’t work well for a picture book.
For me, books don’t just hop out of my head. Heck, my illustrations don’t work like that.
The way I work is more obvious to me now. It’s little steps here-and-there, now-and-then.
Ideas grow and develop across months. I write things down not expecting anything to come of them. On the rarest occasions something sprouts. The picture book that was recently acquired by a publisher developed like that. It’s a picture book that grew from one little drawing and a few sentences. After a long journey of edits with my agent and input from an editor, it was solid enough to move forward. I will be starting work on that in the next few weeks and I’m very excited. It’s the first picture book I wrote and will draw.
I know some people get that opportunity right away. I know artists and writers who have the ability and luck to sell their first manuscript. It didn’t work like that for me. And my second picture book, which is in the process of being acquired (which I can’t talk about yet) didn’t come about any easier. It didn’t have any less drafts or fewer edits or revisions or rewrites or waking-up-at-three-in-the-mornings and realizing that page 15 sucks. (Again, please excuse the professional language.)
I know everyone has a different process. Some learn faster than others. Some writers have a naturally commercial set of instincts. It’s taken me a lot of years to figure out that the time I set aside for writing is just the start of the process. There is no way to shorten the book making recipe for me. But by ending and often beginning each day by writing I create more opportunity for something to develop.
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My guest blogger today is Policeman Michael from Make Way for Ducklings. Everyone knows about his actions that one spring day. But he has a few things to clear up.
I’ve never been asked to be on one of these bloggers before. So I appreciate the invitation.
First off, I only play a small part in that story. And I still say I did the same thing anyone else would. I’m not a hero. Just doing my job. Sometimes I’m asked not so nice, didn’t you have anything better to do? Like stopping the guy who broke my car window and took my laptop on Charles Street? I remind all you e-readers that the occurrences in that book took place in 1941! There were no laptops to steal. It was a different time. It wasn’t all rush, rush, rush. The world war was building and people needed to understand that the little things were still important.
Also, I would like to clarify: Only three times did I stop mid-day traffic. By far the most celebrated was when I did so for those ducks. But I also stopped traffic for a crazed squirrel and one additional time for a couple from Topeka. They were really lost. Thought they were in Philadelphia. And I really need to give a nod to Clancy. He sent a car that day and I always appreciated him doing that.He wasn’t the most easy going guy, but working at headquarters wasn’t an easy going job. Still isn’t I suppose.
Now it’s back to my favorite chair beside the pool. Florida is lovely this time of year, as long as you can escape into air conditioning! Thanks for letting me talk to your readers today. You do have readers right? I mean, how do you even know? Oh well, these computers are all a mess to me. But my granddaughter bought me an iPad, now that I love.
With thanks to Robert McCloskey. Make Way For Ducklings is still one of my favorites. The copy I have was given to me in 1973 for my birthday (the writing is still on the inside flap). And here it is, still on my shelf all these years later.
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