Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Picture Book Authors Tell All! - Part 1

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Picture Book Authors Tell All! - Part 1

You’d never guess it when you read their books, which usually contain very few words on a very few pages, but picture book authors can be ... well, verbose on the page. Maybe it’s the delight of NOT having to compact a thought or scene into a confined space!

Anyway, today I planned to feature the responses of three well-known picture book authors to three simple questions about their craft -- but it seems that I can’t fit their answers into one blog posting! As a result, today’s post will be part one of two.

Not that I’m complaining, and neither will you. Not when you hear who the creators are:

JO ELLEN BOGART, who lives in Guelph, has written 18 books, the first ones published in 1988. She has written in many genres, including pictures books. Her picture book, GIFTS, illustrated by Barbara Reid, was honoured as the 2011 TD Grade One Book Giveaway. Her most recent book is BIG AND SMALL, ROOM FOR ALL.

LAUREL CROZA is the author of the picture book I KNOW HERE, winner of several awards, including the 2011 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. Once a resident of Saskatchewan, Laurel now lives in Toronto with her family.

JEREMY TANKARD is the author/illustrator (or "Authorstrator" as one third grade student labelled him) of three popular picture books: GRUMPY BIRD, BOO HOO BIRD and ME HUNGRY. He is also the illustrator of two books being published in 2012: PIGGY BUNNY and IT'S A TIGER. Jeremy currently lives in Toronto with his family but will soon be moving to Vancouver. Oh, and Jeremy enjoys eating apple pie.

Today’s question: What is your process for writing a picture book, and how do you know when it is “finished”?

JO ELLEN BOGART: If I have a process, it probably varies from book to book. With non-fiction books, I list what I feel needs to be covered for the subject, adding more topics as I do research and learn more myself. I then try to make a reasonable progression through the material so that the reader can understand as she or he goes through from chapter to chapter. I don't want my reader to go "Huh?" because I have not explained something properly. I keep patching in new information and filling in gaps until I feel, upon reading and rereading, that the material flows in a rational and enjoyable way.

For fiction, I sometimes start with a title that has suggested the kernel of the story, as with 10 FOR DINNER. Ten is the basis for the mathematical situations and I filled in the details. Sometimes, I just run with a story, writing as fast as I can, and then go back and see what I have done. Sometimes the story needs revisions, and sometimes I am almost happy enough with what has appeared with seemingly little thought on my part. This occurs infrequently.

With rhyming books, there is sometimes a lot of digging and brain-grinding to find the rhymes that need to seem to just naturally appear. GIFTS was such a book, as was SARAH SAW A BLUE MACAW. These books were like puzzles to be solved.

Considering that I sometimes feel the urge to change a word when I read a book aloud, I will assume that a book is never just the way I want it, though I have not noticed in time how imperfect the word is and have let it stand. Eventually, the story sounds good enough that I send it off to an editor and wait to see his or her suggestions formed with a new point of view.

LAUREL CROZA: For the most part “flows” is a little too optimistic a word to describe my writing process. “Fits and starts” might be more honest.

I’m a very slow writer, I am my worst critic, I edit myself way too fiercely, I rewrite ... then rewrite again ... and again.

I have talismans that I can’t write without: my Oxford Canadian Dictionary, my Fitzhenry & Whiteside Canadian Thesaurus, my Bic mechanical pencils, my sticky notes stuck all over the desk, my laptop. I do things to avoid writing: I check emails, I read my daughter’s blog, I look out the window, I put clothes in the washing machine, I answer emails, I look out the window, I put clothes in the dryer, I look out the window.

But when I finally do get down to the business of writing, time flies. And that’s what happens when you’re doing something you love - you lose yourself in it and three hours feels like three minutes.

How do I know when a picture book is finished? Well, long before I got the courage to send I KNOW HERE to Groundwood I read it out loud in a workshop. One of the comments I got was this:

“ needs a touch of forward momentum … for what comes next. As well as wondering what ‘they’ see in Toronto, is there room for wondering what ‘I’ will see there?”

I didn’t take the advice. I certainly don’t always know when to end my stories - sometimes they could use a little more, sometimes a little less - but when I wrote the final words to I KNOW HERE - “This is what I know. Here” - I KNEW that it was finished. Now, that’s not to say the little girl’s journey can’t be continued. It has been! But it’s a whole NEW story and it’s called FROM THERE TO HERE (soon to be illustrated by amazing Matt James).

JEREMY TANKARD: I'm still trying to figure this part out. At the moment I tend to start with drawings. I like drawing and often find my characters through drawing more easily than when I'm writing. And often the drawing begins to dictate the voice of the character as well which makes writing a little easier.

If I'm writing a book that relies more heavily on dialog then I will do more of my writing with words (usually on my computer but occasionally with a pen and paper). But this isn't the case with all stories. In many I like to think of my characters as actors who are putting on a play. And as actors they have facial expressions and body language that can tell more than words. So I will often let them do the storytelling for me (by doing the drawings first) then add the words afterwards.

However, I like to work from a brief outline if the drawings are being created before the words. The outline keeps me focused on the story and makes sure that it has a beginning, middle and end. I don't like to draw without some idea of where the whole thing is going. So often the order is:

1. draw (to create character and get story ideas)
2. create a rough outline to give me some structure
3. write or draw (depending on the amount of story-telling the words or pictures needs to do)
4. redraw and rewrite until it looks good enough to pitch (I'm not a perfectionist at the pitching stage because it invariably comes back to me having to be completely redrawn/rewritten anyway)
5. once the book has been successfully pitched (this can take months or, sometimes, years) I rewrite and redraw until the book is as perfect as I can make it
6. wait for a year until the book shows up in stores
7. start all over again

Incidentally for every one book that gets published I have at least eight others that haven't made the cut. And each of these eight has gone through a significant part of this process. But I never know until I've tried whether something will work. Sometimes I know very quickly that it was a bad idea. Other times it takes weeks or months to figure out.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page