Wednesday, January 23, 2008


One of the hardest things about writing and trying to sell manuscripts is waiting. I just found out that the sketches for my latest sale won’t be available until spring. This is to be expected with a fabulous, very busy illustrator. But I feel like a kid during the holidays, wondering every night if tomorrow is Christmas. Can you hear the crickets chirping?

Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep.

I’ve got several manuscripts being looked at right now and I’m waiting for responses. I’m also waiting for my first two books to finally be released. And although the time is slowly drawing closer, it has honestly felt like an ETERNITY of anticipation. I remember finding out I had sold Bedtime at the Swamp three years ago. A phone call, and three years of waiting. Three years that feel like a decade.

Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep. So what should a writer do, to release the stress and anxiety that comes with all this waiting?


Cheep cheep.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Using Illustration Notes - Put Down the Megaphone

It’s important that new children’s book writers understand the correct way to use illustration notes in their manuscripts. I think one of the main reasons new writers misuse them is because they have a skewed perception of the role of the illustrator in the creation of a children’s picture book.

For example, at a writer’s conference I attended recently, we were listening to a celebrated illustrator discuss some of his techniques. A woman raised her hand and said, “I’ve got this manuscript I’ve written about a little girl, and in my mind I picture her a certain way. She has blonde hair and freckles, and a crooked little smile. How can I explain to the illustrator exactly what I want?”

And I thought…oh my.

The illustrator kindly said, “Well, if she needs to look a particular way for a certain reason, like if she needs wild, curly hair because a bird builds a nest in it, write it into the manuscript or use an illustration note.”

She replied, “Well, her appearance doesn’t really matter for the story, it’s just the vision I have of her in my head. She’s my character, and I couldn’t have an illustrator who didn’t paint her my way.”

And I thought…oh my, my.

Her comments are a perfect example of the skewed perception I’m talking about. Some new picture books writers—and I’m not sure where this idea comes from—believe that the illustrator is their personal graphic designer, who basically takes orders from the all-powerful author. So they spew out illustration notes like commands from a director’s chair. It's a bit like "Bridezilla" syndrome.

“Yes, but I’m the one who created the story! Shouldn’t the illustrator do things the way I want?”

Although the author writes the text for the story, the illustrator is a professional with his or her own creative point of view. You must understand that illustrators are MORE IMPORTANT in the creation of picture books than authors, in many respects. Heck, they even get paid more. That’s because you can have a picture book without text, but you cannot have a picture book without pictures. The illustrations make or break the success of the book. My feeling is, as picture book writers we must bow down to the artists who bring our stories to life and pay homage. We should feel respect and admiration for these creative geniuses, allowing them as much freedom as possible within the framework of the text.

“What if I still want it done my way?”

To an editor, you will not only look like a naïve amateur, but a naïve amateur with a bad attitude.

“So...when should I use an illustration note?”

Only when:

1. The illustration must portray something which is not mentioned in the text.
2. It’s important to the story making sense.
3. Without the note, the illustrator might misunderstand your intent.
4. The editor agrees it should be there.

In my book Cool Daddy Rat, I had included too many illustration notes. My editor cut them down to two. One of my original notes said the characters were traveling in a taxi. My editor asked, “Why does it have to be a taxi? What if the illustrator puts them on the top of a double-decker bus, or in a helicopter? What about a subway train? Let’s be surprised by what the illustrator comes up with. Does it really matter what they’re traveling in?"

It didn’t. I got rid of the illustration note.
It's actually a very exciting experience finding out how an illustrator has interpretted your text. One of my friends and fellow authors was surprised when her little girl character was turned into a female beagle pup. My friend never could have expected such a thing, and yet was delighted with the result. The character is so charming she's bound to delight children everywhere.

“What if I still want it done my way?”

Sigh. Go to art school, and become an illustrator.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Snow Way

It's been snowing. A lot. Yesterday I was trapped in my vehicle for a few hours, spinning in circles. It had snowed all night and we had several feet of the stuff everywhere, and no plows in sight. In these kinds of situations, I wonder what in the world we ever did before cell phones. My husband came to the rescue in his patrol car, but soon was stuck himself, and even worse for him, he was blocking the intersection. It was the Crow comedy show. We tried digging out, spinning, revving, pushing, but no, we were hopelessly stuck. Both vehicles. I called the city, but dispatch whined that the snow plows were "a little busy" at the moment. Finally a neighbor in his monster truck (well almost) towed us out.

Here's a picture of what the snow plows finally did. It's a snow mountain, twelve feet high. That tree you see is not off in the distance, it's actually coming right up out of the snow.

There's not a whole lot anybody can do with all this snow, except maybe get a little creative. Here's what some neighbors did. This is a Shrek snowman, as tall as their house. It gets a lot of attention from passing cars.

So, how's the weather where you are?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dissecting SpongeBob

There’s a very important question that all children’s book writers should contemplate. It is this: What makes SpongeBob SquarePants so appealing?

To answer this question is to unlock one of the secrets of the universe. I mean, who could have predicted that a yellow sponge with a whiny voice and googly-eyes living at the bottom of the sea would end-up revered by kids everywhere? I believe it’s imperative we figure this guy out. He's not only popular, he's a multi-millionaire. And as much as he might sometimes annoy us grown-up folk, we’d best become familiar with the distinguished Mr. SpongeBob if we want to create our own characters for children that have lasting appeal.

I’ve decided I could write a treatise on SpongeBob, but I’ll just share a few observations:

1. First of all, he’s child-like. He not only looks innocent and gullable, but he also approaches things like a kid. This is an important trait for the main character in a picture book, in my view. After all, children don't identify much with adults. Not really. When kids hear stories about adults, there’s usually a lesson hiding in there somewhere. And no--that will never do. Kids want to hear about what other kids are doing. They don’t want to be taught, lectured, or preached to, at least not in their bedtime stories. And I don't think they care all that much about the plight of grown-ups, unless those grown-ups are pirates or superheroes or live on another planet. Children have already observed real-live adults functioning in the real-live adult world, and it’s a boring enough existence to be avoided as long as possible. Ask Peter Pan.

2. Second, he's got intriguing characters to interact with, and an interesting setting to live in. His boss, Mr. Crabs, has a daughter who is (quite literally, well--in a cartoony reality) a whale. And SpongeBob’s friend, Sandy, is a squirrel who wears a diver’s helmet so she can hang out with him beneath the sea. His best friend Patrick is a starfish with the brain of a slug. The sheer unpredictability/strangeness of the characters, environment, and situations lends itself to a whole lot of fun surprises. Anything is possible. And yet, there’s just enough similarity to real life (friendships, jobs, bummers) to give it an anchor.

3. Third, he's the hero of his own universe. It's not easy being a sponge in a wacky underwater world. Everything SpongeBob does seems to get messed up somehow. This is a universal experience all kids have. (All people have it, but for kids it’s a way of life.) “I’m trying to do something, and it’s not working.” Or, “I’m trying to do something but something weird happened instead." And yet, with a little stick-to-itiveness, everything turns out fine... in a bizarre, unexpected kind of way. That's just life, even in Bikinni Bottom.

4. Fourth, he has exaggerated emotions. SpongeBob laughs, cries, yells, pouts, whines, feels sorry for himself, cheers, loves, and even gets sick. He lets us see exactly what he's going through, and in a big way. Kids can relate to his overblown emotions. And we know what he longs for and thinks about most, since he hides nothing. We know he dreams of getting a promotion, and he hangs on to this hope despite a whole lot of disappointment. That's heroic, too.

5. Fifth, he’s funny. And humor is such an appealing trait. SpongeBob is funny because he’s not afraid to be genuinely himself no matter how strange things gets. He’s funny because of his quirks--his nasal voice and his buggy eyes and his ability to expand or squish himself into silly shapes. He’s funny because he’s naïve and vulnerable. And he’s funny because--let’s face it—everybody has seen his underwear.