I’ve finally finished reading the book that I won at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. Well, technically I didn’t win the book; I won a gift certificate to the SCBWI store for having one of the funniest tweets at the conference, but that’s another story.
After looking through the rich selection, I settled on Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books, by Uri Shulevitz. As my editors and illustrators will tell you, I’m not much of an illustrator, although I learned to draw veiltail guppies pretty well back when I was breeding them for pocket money in high school. They’re my “go-to” critter when little kids want a picture. But I digress.
Since the first word in the title is “writing” and the subtitle begins with “how to write,” I figured the book would be slanted toward authors rather than illustrators. As I stood there holding the book, an announcement came over the PA saying that the next session was preparing to start and the store was closing. I was running out of time to pick a book, so I grabbed this one.
First impressions after a quick scan of the book:
- Mr. Shulevitz is a talented and versatile illustrator.
- I should have looked more closely at the title and realized that “writing with pictures” can be interpreted to mean “writing with pictures instead of words.”
- The book was published in 1985, but the majority of the illustration is in a style that would have been more fitting quite a few decades earlier than that.
- Most of the book is black and white, and the color section is hopelessly outdated in a world of InDesign and Quark.
I waffled back and forth on whether to actually read the book and decided to go for it. It’s good to branch out. Although I figured it wouldn’t do much for my writing skills, I’ve worked with a lot of illustrators over the years and the book might help me to understand them better. All in all, I think that was a good decision.
Writing with Pictures spends very little time addressing the writer’s craft. It doesn’t tell you how to fit your words to your target age group, how to structure a story, how to write dialog for kids, or any of the other things that make us good children’s writers. It does, however, talk a lot about layout.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t work like many children’s authors do. When I write books like my Who Pooped in the Park? series, I visualize pages and plan the text to fit them. Mr. Shulevitz’ book addresses page layout well. He talks about it from an artistic point of view, but also looks at how the layout of the pages affects the flow of the story. Part Two (“Planning the Book”) is an excellent guide to the structure of an illustrated children’s book, and I think any children’s author would benefit from reading it. I had to slog through many parts of the book, but that one definitely held my attention.
My first impression was right as far as parts of the book being out-of-date. The final section had a good basic description of the printing process, but then went into great detail on color separations. Artists and designers today don’t have to think “30% yellow”; just pick a color from the palette, tweak until you’re happy with it, and use it. As long as you’re designing in the correct color space (make sure it’s CMYK, not RGB!), the software will take care of everything automatically.
Please don’t take this to mean that I think Uri Shulevitz is out of date. Heavens, no! He’s still winning Caldecott awards, and that puts him way ahead of me. But the techniques for manual illustration, layout, color separations, and so forth have changed. Younger illustrators who grew up in the digital age don’t work the same way.
I won’t even try to judge the usefulness of this book to an illustrator. That’s outside my field. If you write children’s books, however, I’d recommend reading it — even if all you read is Part Two.
At the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles last weekend, I was hoping for an opportunity to network with other children’s picture book authors and illustrators and compare notes. Boy, did I get that opportunity! I expected a clear picture to emerge of how the relationships work, but I ended up with a more muddled image than I started with.
For perspective, here’s how it worked with my first Who Pooped in the Park? book: I went to the publisher with a concept and a title. Shortly after issuing the contracts, they sent me portfolios from three illustrators and asked me what I thought. I called the editor, Kathy Springmeyer, and told her which was my favorite. As it turned out, I picked the same one they had picked. Life was good. Elijah Brady Clark was our chosen illustrator.
As Eli went to work on a cover design, I wrote the book in a three-column layout (there’s an example in another blog post of mine). The left column described the illustration I wanted on that page or spread. The center column was the text. The right column was the “Straight Poop” sidebar, if that page had one. After Kathy finished doing what editors do and we came to agreement on my manuscript, she sent it off to Eli. He did rough sketches of all of the pages and sent them to Kathy. I believe they went back and forth once or twice before I saw the sketches, but I don’t know. I went through them and marked up anything that wasn’t accurate or that I didn’t think fit the flow well.
Once everybody came to agreement, Eli produced final color illustrations, the art department put it all together, Kathy and I did a final round of proofreading, and the book went to the printer.
One of the first pieces of advice I heard at SCBWI was to make sure never to include illustrations in a submission because it’s better for the editor to read the manuscript and picture which in-house illustrator would fit the best. Shortly after that I heard from an editor that they’re actively looking for good author/illustrator teams that work well together. An agent later on said that they don’t like representing both the author and the illustrator because it’s too much work and confusion.
On Sunday, I attended a session by children’s author Verla Kay. She said that she has no input into the illustration process at all. The publisher selects the artist, and the entire book design is done before she gets a chance to see it. Personally, I find that prospect depressing. Having no input into the art and overall design not only takes all the fun out of writing for children, but in my humble opinion, it reduces the quality of the final product.
At SCBWI’s conference, I met an author and an illustrator from Arizona that are working on their first book together. Each page is a collaborative effort, with the text and pictures carefully hand-crafted to work together well (when their book comes out, I’ll post something about it on this blog. What I saw looked really good). I also met illustrators looking for authors, authors looking for illustrators, authors married to their illustrator, authors who did their own illustration, and authors like Verla who had multiple books out and had never communicated directly with their illustrators.
What kind of conclusion can you draw from this?
Believe it or not, I think there is a conclusion to be drawn. And that is that you should do whatever works for you. Don’t try to figure out what agents and editors are looking for. Just produce the best manuscript you can produce — however you like to do it — and then look for the right agent and/or editor.
Where do you start a review of a book about feedback for people who write books? My initial temptation was to start by pointing out page 67, where the author refers to someone who was not “phased” by criticism (that should read “fazed”), but the book has moved beyond that phase of its development. Writers crave feedback from the very first words they string together in the creation of a book. Is my first chapter riveting? Does the first page set the reader’s expectations appropriately? Does the first paragraph grab the reader’s attention?
Once the book is out, however, the focus changes. A book review isn’t for the author, no matter how much we love reading the good ones. Book reviews are for potential readers and for booksellers. A book review answers the question, “should I read this book.”
In that spirit, let me back up and look at Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive, by Joni B. Cole. It is, first and foremost, a book for writers. In fact, it strikes deep into the heart of the writer. As I said above, we all crave feedback. We all need feedback. But most of us dread feedback.
I am writing this from my hotel room at the SCBWI annual conference. Just before the big social event Saturday night, I was chatting with a young writer and asked her how the conference was going for her. “Just got my ass handed to me on a platter at a one-on-one manuscript review session,” she replied. She held her hands out in front of her, as if holding a plate. “Here you go. Here’s your ass.” This kind of feedback can be a crushing blow to a new author. Heck, it can be a crushing blow to an award-winning, best-selling, top-of-his-game writer. And this is what Joni is talking about in Toxic Feedback.
Of necessity, the book is somewhat schizophrenic. It simultaneously addresses the writer receiving the feedback and the person (often another writer) who is giving it. Joni doesn’t take a kittens and rainbows approach. She doesn’t say that you should tell someone how wonderful their manuscript is while ignoring the gaping plot holes, dimensionless characters, and atrocious grammar. She does, however, guide feedback providers through the process of matching feedback to the developmental stage of the manuscript.
If your writer buddy has just completed a marathon session at the keyboard, leaving keys smoking (and slightly damp from sweat) creating a brand-new chapter for her book, this is not the time to point out that she has a subject-verb agreement problem on page 24. She’ll figure that out in a future session. Now is the time to say, “Wow! You wrote 3,000 words in three hours? Once you clean up the description of downtown London (that’s the Tower Bridge, dear, not the London Bridge), this is going to be fantastic.” Later, when the final draft is complete and you’re giving it a last perusal before she submits it for publication, that’s when you should point out the missing comma on page 12 and the misspelled word on page 39.
We must have negative feedback. In his keynote speech at the SCBWI conference, Gary Paulsen referred to the endless cycle of Hollywood movie production fakery: You’re wonderful. Oh, no, YOU are wonderful! I’ll never be as wonderful as you. This does nothing to advance our craft. But “you suck” doesn’t help, either. Feedback can be negative without crossing over into the category Joni calls toxic. There’s a massive difference between, “If you developed Sue’s character as much as you developed Uncle Dave’s, it would help to understand why she ran away” and “Your character development for Sue is horrible.”
We need positive feedback, too. If you point out only what stinks about a manuscript without telling the author what’s great, he may despair and toss it away. No matter what you’re critiquing, the creator needs to know what’s working; what to do more of. Joni spends a lot of time in the book talking about how to receive feedback, how to process feedback, how to squeeze the most value out of it. She also spends a lot of time talking about how to give feedback. It makes me want to hand copies of her book to anyone who is going to review one of my own manuscripts.
And we need specific feedback. It struck home for me when Joni talked about knowing why something does or doesn’t work. If you don’t know exactly what you did right, it’s hard to do it again. And if you don’t know precisely how you screwed up an article, you’re likely to screw up the next one. Specificity is very important in feedback, as is recognizing whether feedback is reflective of a problem in the manuscript or simply a personal bias in the person providing the feedback.
I’m not a big “writer’s circle” kind of guy — if I spent all my time in writing groups I wouldn’t have any time to write — so the end of the book dragged for me. It is also a very woman-oriented book. Guys don’t obsess about what kind of muffins to take to a writer’s group. But the message she put forth at the beginning of Toxic Feedback was clear, and was reinforced throughout the book. I’ve been writing for a long time, and I definitely learned something from Joni.
Whether you are soliciting feedback on your own work, or reviewing a manuscript for someone else, Joni’s book will help to pull everything into perspective. For writers, it will help you to recognize useless, toxic feedback and not let it faze you.
Postscript: Why did I call this a “feedback loop” in the title? Because I wrote a post on this blog back in May about some feedback I received on a Who Pooped in the Park? book. Shortly after that, I noticed I had a new follower on Twitter, and read an interview with Joni on her “My Literary Quest” blog and added a comment on the blog post. Joni Cole saw my comment and sent me an email. We ended up chatting, and she sent me a copy of her book, which I’m now reviewing. Authors do have to be careful to remember our audiences and not just spend all of our time writing for (and to) each other. But interaction with other authors is one of the things that keeps us going.
Over the years, as my career shot through its giant pinball machine, changing directions whenever it hit a peg, I have been involved in quite a few trade associations, ranging from the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) to the ABA (American Booksellers Association). I’ve written for that other ABA (an article in the ABA Journal), spent years as an associate member, contributing editor, and faculty member at NCRA (the National Court Reporters Association), and exhibited many times at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) annual conference. If I added up all of the regional associations that I’ve joined, spoken at, written for, or exhibited with, I could come up with another few dozen easily.
The first time attending one of these conferences can be uncomfortable. The events are mainly social, and you don’t know any of the other attendees — all of whom appear to be lifelong buddies. But networking is an important part of business, and you work through the awkwardness. Next year will be easier! Back in my days in the electronics business, at least one thing was easy: how to dress. For the most part, men in the electronics business had two choices. We could dress up (suit and tie) or dress down (an appropriate t-shirt). As I became more known as a writer, I felt more comfortable dressing like me, which included cowboy boots and a Stetson. That could still be dressed up or down and could still look quite professional.
Despite over 25 years as a published writer and almost 10 years with writing as my primary source of income, I’ve never attended a major writers’ conference. It is, however, time to do so. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) summer conference. Hopefully, I shall be networking with publishers and agents and determining what comes after Who Pooped in the Park?
Writers. We’re an eclectic bunch. Nobody expects us to wear suits, right? I can just be me. Until the Saturday mixer. Let me just quote directly from the conference schedule:
7:30 PM – 10:30 PM
THE 40 WINKS ANNIVERSARY POOLSIDE GALA
In honor of our 40th Anniversary Conference we’re throwing a pajama party! The 40 Winks Ball will be a legendary poolside gala with food, drinks, music and dancing. The only thing we’ll need is you in your pajamas or a reasonable facsimile. Special prizes will be awarded for the best dressed for bedtime! Hurry on down to the pool on Saturday night! We can’t promise you’ll get much sleep, (maybe 40 winks or so) but staying up late will never be more fun.
Wait a minute! I have to network professionally in my pajamas? Nobody wants to see me in my pajamas. I don’t even have pajamas. This will be a challenge. Or maybe it’s an opportunity. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, right? I just need to come up with some incredibly clever sleepwear for a professional mixer.
Or does it really matter? After all, I’m the guy that writes books about poop. I don’t think the expectations will be very high.