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Posts Tagged ‘writing fiction’

beckett

 Happy Blue Creature & S. Beckett

I am often asked about my favorite books and inspirations. I’m uncomfortable with that question in regards to kids lit as I don’t separate genres and styles well. I like what I like and it all plays a part in my work.

I understand from a business perspective why we have genres and demographics, but I have a difficult time relating to the world according to marketing categories as I think most of us do.

Starting in high school I fell in love with the writing of Franz Kafka. (I even illustrated a take on one of his short stories)  The ultimate young adult existential gateway books. And yes – that lead to Camus and Sartre and Borges. Many of the books introduced to me in an excellent high school literature class taught by Mr. Bernauer. (Thanks again for World Lit!)

And that experience propelled me to becoming a Comparative Literature major in college. And while I loved it, I had good reasons for moving on to 2 or 3 additional majors before I graduated with my BFA.

But all the books I love wash together. Some of Stephen King’s short story collections, Lord of the Rings, the picture poems of Kenneth Patchen, The Unamable (by Beckett), Jim the Boy, The Book of Illusions – the list goes on and on – and these run hand-n-hand with Bannock Beans and Black Tea, The Peanuts comic strip collections, The Little Prince, comics by Lewis Trondheim and picture books by Mo Willems. Low art, high art…it doesn’t matter. I enjoy them all and love when a book mixes in a bit of all those disparate human point of views. But to effectively sell a book, you best be one thing. But of course, the best books never are just one thing.

My literary enjoyments remind me of a Joseph Campbell quote: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”.

He was addressing mythology, but I find this is an apt description of what drives my desires in reading too.

 

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pencilpaper

I talk about the power of pencil and paper when I speak at schools and libraries.

Tools that every kid knows how to use and yet, when combined with an active imagination, they are the best starting points for any type of idea: A film, a book, a video game. The humble pencil and paper is far more dynamic tool than my Wacom tablet or Photoshop or my iPad.

I have been working digitally for close to 16 years now but my sketchbooks carry my history is such a satisfying way. The biggest technology change to my pencil and sketchbook in that time is that I use automatic pencils now instead of having 4 or 5 sharpened pencils (well, they started out as sharpened) in my backpack. But keeping enough pencil leads in the pencil is easier than keeping a battery charged.

 

 

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youngmarkI often get asked how I got into this field of work but the more interesting question is how I did not get into this field of work. Here is how it DIDN’T all start.

Let’s get into the Way Back Time Machine and set the dial to 1992 or 1993. I’ll figure it out when I get there. You have to pump the time accelerator, the space-time spark plugs are corroded.

There. Now it’s working… A few years after graduating college I was working at a connectivity software company doing interface/ interactive design and would soon be working on some very early websites. (Can you say grey backgrounds?) I was also doing some freelance illustrations and was in love with picture books.

A local author/illustrator named Kevin Henkes (Yeah THAT Kevin Henkes. Still have all his books) was generous enough to spend time on a phone call or email with me (I don’t remember which now) and he explained enough about submitting that I decided to try it out. A generous bunch these author/illustrators. My career has depended on the generosity of people like this.

I researched an imprint that fit my work, called the publisher and got an editor’s name (man was I energized!) and rules for submission (I was a worker bee back then!). I had my dummy in pencil roughs and two illustrations with color finishes (Kinkos color photocopies – at the time color copies were like magic), my manuscript properly printed out and proofed (spelling was mostly pretty good – I like to say), included a SASE – and off it went.

Back to work for me and checking the mail every day. Three weeks later I walked home for lunch (I lived just down the street from where I worked.) and in the mailbox was my SASE. I was expecting the worst (the Minnesotan in me I think) but a sliver of me hoped that maybe, just maybe – they decided to buy my book, had sent me a check for twenty thousand dollars and decided already it was the best picture book ever written.

I was enthusiastic, inexperienced, naive – a perfect fit to jump into publishing! My hands were shaking as I sat at my cluttered kitchen table and opened the envelope.

Inside was my dummy, my manuscript – and a letter from the editor! (I still have it filed somewhere) And it basically said, this is a pretty good book. Here’s some ideas to work on. When you are ready send it back.

WOW! Yowza! Holly SASE Batman! It was encouragement which means so much when you are starting out.

I immediately set to work thinking about the ideas from the editor that afternoon. I didn’t get a lot of work done at work that day… Within two weeks I sealed up another envelop and sent back my revisions. (MAN! I was efficient back then.)

I had started to believe that it was within the realm of possibility that I could do this and I waited.

About 2 months later I got my SASE back. And no, there wasn’t a check or a publishing contract inside (let the kid dream) – but there was another letter. It said that the editor I had corresponded with was no longer with this publisher (I hope she wasn’t fired for encouraging a slub like me!) and that no other editors had any interest in this project. (She must have been fired for questionable taste when she encouraged a slub like me!) Bye and thank-you-very-much.

And that was that. My introduction to picture books. It would be more than a decade before I would look at this industry seriously again and submit a picture book.

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I apologize

face

I am making my amends today to all those people (friends, family, agents, editors) who read my early manuscripts. My Very First Drafts I call them now. And so many people WERE kind enough to read them. Wow. And many of them returned useful thoughts and reactions which is even nicer. And the people I never heard from again – I know why now.

I’m just finishing the first draft of a middle grade novel I started last August, and I’ll be putting it away for a few weeks now to ‘age’. Then I will take it out and start in on a second draft. This is a process I didn’t utilize when I was younger.

I’ve written 4 (what I would call) middle grade novels now, this latest is my 5th. The first time I finished a novel I was so excited – well, we all know what happens. I sent it off  WAY too soon to waaaaay too many people. It was a rookie mistake. I make lots of rookie mistakes – even though I am not a rookie. Should be on my gravestone – ‘Lived a Rookie. Died A Rookie.’

Since that first time I have never had a novel come out of  a second draft in good enough shape to send to anyone. I’m hoping my newest might. The other night I took that first novel I finished, from 12 years ago, out and read it. Man…I’m so sorry for those who made their way through it or tried and couldn’t. I can’t get you your time back. Sorry!

But I do admire the enthusiasm I had with it. That should not be discounted by all those who get that Very First Draft from someone or for those who are taking their first writing steps. I don’t muster that kind of enthusiasm with my first drafts these days and often not with my second or third drafts either.

I’ve been working on a picture book manuscript for 3 years now. (And don’t we all know people who are sure picture books are easy to write because they have so few words!?) I’ve ripped it apart and put it together too many times to count and I’m starting to think there is some organic flaw in it because it is still suffering fatal issues.

Thanks to all the people out there that do take time to read a Very First Draft from a Very Young Writer. And another belated thanks to the ones who have read mine.

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The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the film The Shawshank Redemption. It’s focus is on the continued revenue stream the film provides for the studio that owns it. What’s more interesting is how a movie is released, is pretty much ignored by the  movie going public and then lives on as one of the highest rated films of all times.

This has happened before with films like Citizen Kaen and Casablanca.  These movies came out and no one seemed to care that much. But they go on to entertain generations.

In the WSJ article they mention that the film may have been overshadowed by Forrest Gump at the box-office which was the BIG movie the year it was released. Forrest Gump was an enjoyable film, but when I watched it again a few years ago it seemed pretty forced. The truth is that Forrest Gump has not held up very well through the years, while Shawshank has.

This same situation happens with books. There are of course mega-hits right from the start.  But often those works hit so big because they channel some moment of cultural zeitgeist perfectly and it resonates. Like a flashlight bouncing off mirrors, it can light up an entire room. But ultimately it’s only got a triple A battery behind it. It doesn’t last.

The strength that comes from perfectly capturing the moment can make the work feel flat and dated in a short time. For me TV shows, especailly sitcoms, are the most obvious examples of this. (with a few notable exceptions.) If you watch the most successful shows from the past, say 1956 or 1973, it quickly becomes obvious that they are badly dated in both big and small ways. Watching the show becomes an exercise in irony.

Even the shows that were tops in 1982: Dallas, Three’s Company, Joannie Loves Chachi – ouch! Yet, at the time they commanded huge numbers of viewers.

This is just a permutation of the debate on commercial art vs. fine art. Is what we’re creating going to stand the test of time? Does that issue matter since we can’t consciously control that aspect of our work anyway? Do we too often make alterations to work to feed into the current trends and desires vs. making something that might resonate with a deeper sense of ethos, pathos and logos?

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So I’ve been negligent in talking about what I’m working on right now. I think this is because it’s real work to me. Something I already focus on all day long (and often evenings) and when I get to my blog duties I like to get away from all that. I’d much rather talk about important stuff like National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day – which is May 15th.

TGTE_1

Cropped sample from The Great Thanksgiving Escape. Out Sept. 2014 from Candlewick Press.

But what AM I DOING?

Right at this moment I’m typing and – drinking tea. Really good Chinese Breakfast from Numi Tea. (no I wasn’t sponsored to say that – it’s just  that they make the best bagged black teas right now)

I am also finishing a picture book I wrote and illustrated for Penguin that will be out next year.  I’m also about a third of the way done with a picture book I’m illustrating for Hyperion.

 


gtg1

I’m starting to plan some marketing for the picture book I wrote and Illustrated coming out this Sept. called The Great Thanksgiving Escape, which is being released by Candlewick Press. (I just received the first two sample copies on Saturday!) This is a book inspired by Oregon in many ways. You’ll see when you read it and get to the end (So order it now! what are you waiting for!?) This is the first picture book I wrote and illustrated. I got to wear both hats. And a wig. And clown shoes.

gtg4

After that I have a bunch of exciting projects I will blab on about later, including three more picture books I am thrilled to be illustrating.

Now I need to walk the dogs, yet another of the quotidian that keep me from ‘real’ work.

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fly

The book below looks like a great read. Creativity, INC. by Ed Catmull, he of Pixar fame, talks about the need to make mistakes.

No, it’s more than that, he talks about how making mistakes means you’re pushing yourself and looking for new solutions. After all, if we don’t try anything new and only do what’s been done before and how it’s been done before – we guarantee we don’t do anything new.

cvr3

I like advice like this, but I’m always a bit suspicious of advice and UNLOCK your creativity type books. The cynic in my head says things like, “I’m better at the mistake making part of life. Just not good at the doing it right part.” or “Great advice. But I don’t want you to be a pilot of a plane I’m on.” But I will be getting a copy of this book.

Here’s a link to the Brain Pickings site and an article by Maria Popova.

From the book about mistakes:

“[Many people] think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.”

Below is an interesting quote which speaks to me as I like to keep my work evolving as I do it. I don’t like planning out that one tight, super specific sketch. I like to discover and react as I paint a page in a book. This is a more difficult route no doubt, as I never have a point where I just turn off my brain and ‘color’ or ink lines. I’m reworking the whole thing as I work. At times I think I make doing picture books as hard as I can…

From the book: “If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment. In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.”

Thanks George for sending me the link!

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