Hello everyone! Instead of my usual post on one aspect I love of a specific book, I’m starting a series of posts on the steps I go through taking an idea to a book deal. I’m also going to be enlisting my agent, Jen Rofé, as well as my editor, Frances Gilbert, in interviews, to share what their role is this process. While I know this often looks very different for each person, I hope this will be helpful, or at least interesting to read.
This first post will mostly be my initial stage of this journey. While I’ve shared before about my process in creating the actual book and artwork, that’s often the process after my editor has acquired it. But today I want to talk about the ground work that gets me to that stage where a publisher actually sees it (and hopefully wants it).
For me, it starts with an idea. I get lots of ideas, but a large majority of them don’t make the cut. They just hang out there as “ideas” on a very full shelf, often never being taken out or revisited again. I don’t always recognize their potential, so every time I get an idea, I write it down – mostly on stickies. Sometimes, because I also illustrate, I’ll create a quick doodle of the idea if I’m quite fond of it, and see where it leads. If it’s solid, it almost always snowballs into more ideas. That’s when I generally know I’m onto something.
For example, this past November, I was doodling wolves (for a different idea) and just randomly doodled a kid holding a cat. My ideas don’t always come from drawing, but this one did. I drew this goofy kid awkwardly holding a cat and all I could think of was this how she would call it Fido, and then how it wouldn’t obey her – it was a “bad dog”. That was the spark. That very thought was when I knew I had an idea that could actually be a book, but first I had to write it.
Writing a picture book story is not easy for me. Drawing definitely comes more naturally, but writing a story, a story worthy to be read and picked up by a publisher, I find that extremely difficult. When I was starting out in publishing, I didn’t edit this stage too much. I’d have already sent out that “idea” to my agent thinking it was ready to go. If it wasn’t a “not too sure about this” or “hmm, I don’t think this is working”, she’d almost always (and graciously) reply with a “Fun idea, but then what?” or “so what?”. It was never intended to be mean, but a challenge. She may have liked the idea, but it needed the details and loose ends to be cleaned up. It needed the catch and the whole pitch, with a beginning and ending (and a meaningful one at that!). So now that “So what?” is always going through my head as I’m working on fleshing out the my idea, writing it into a story form. “Why is this happening?” “Is it absolutely necessary?” “Does it distract or add to the story?”. This generally works pretty good, but once in a while I still get the blinders on and can’t see I’ve gone the wrong way and I have to scrap it all. I think Jen has a “special” folder with a couple real doozies of mine.
I also I read my story out loud – mostly to myself. And I do this a lot. I’ve found reading it out loud is one of the most efficient ways to trim down all the unnecessary words and text from my MS. It also gives me a feeling of how well this one will do with the kids I read it to. I’ve learned from doing school visits and reading to my own kids, how much a book benefits from being a wonderful/fun to read out loud story.
I may compose a couple really, REALLY, rough page layout here or there, but not always. I find it helps me with pacing my story telling – which is really important. A lot of a picture book is about pacing from page to page. Dan Santat taught me that.
As I see it getting close, it becomes a lot of sharing with my crit group/family/friends, and honest self-editing, trying to answer the questions I know my agent will have for me.
Then I hit send knowing that if it makes the cut, there’s a LOT of work ahead of this story yet…
Next post I’ll be interviewing my amazing agent, Jen Rofé, about her “so what?” factor, some of the other things she helps me with, and when she feels a story is ready to send out to publishers. If you have specific questions you’d like me to ask her, write them below in the comments and I’ll try to work them into the interview!
Until next time!