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.
If you sit long enough at a book signing table, you hear all kinds of interesting questions. During my signing tour in Yellowstone National Park this week, signing Who Pooped in the Park? books, quite a few groups of people came by, looked at the poster and/or the books, said something to each other in a foreign language, and left. I have to wonder how many different languages people used this week to say, “Crazy Americans! They write books about poop!”
Many of the questions were very logical, and some were pretty silly. As an example:
Did you write this book, or are you just here signing it?
Really? I’m sitting here under a big sign that says “Meet the Author.” My picture is on the sign. And who signs other people’s books, anyway?
Do we have to pay for the book?
I forgive the little kids who ask this question. I’m sure they haven’t been trained in the ways of capitalism yet. But adults? Oh, my.
Another favorite of mine came from a boy about nine years old. He said,
My parents bought me this book when I was a kid. I really liked it.
I chuckled and thanked him. Our perspectives do change as we age, don’t they?
Some of the serious and logical questions have quick and easy answers, others more complex:
How long did it take you to write this book?
Actually writing the book? Not that long. On each Who Pooped? book, I spent 2-3 months of research, building animal lists, writing, planning out the page layouts, drafting instructions for the illustrator, and so forth. Then the illustrator (Eli or Rob) sketches out each page and sends them in to the editor, who goes through everything and makes changes and suggestions. When she’s happy, it comes back to me. I go through the sketches and check everything for accuracy and to make sure it fits what I was trying to accomplish. At that stage, we’ll often have someone from the park check it over as well. Then it goes back to the illustrator, who does final color illustrations and page layouts. After the editor and I sign off on those, the book gets the final details, like an ISBN, and goes off to the printer. Final books appear in my hand about a year after the contract was signed.
What gave you the idea for Who Pooped in the Park?
My kids. Up until then, I had been writing mostly specialized technical stuff (like The Closed Captioning Handbook). A stack of our hay was torn up one day, and I was showing the kids how to identify the culprits (deer poop and footprints). They told me I needed to do a book about animal poop for kids. We came up with the “Who Pooped?” title, and proposed it to a publisher who turned it down. Then a sales rep for Farcountry Press suggested talking to their acquisition editor, and the rest is history!
Did you do the drawings?
I wish I had the talent that Eli Clark and Rob Rath have. They are the ones that have illustrated my Who Pooped? series: Eli did the first six, and Rob has done the others. They are both very skilled, and they are a big part of the reason the books have succeeded.
Since most of my signings in the park were in gift shops and hotel lobbies, the most common question I heard wasn’t even related to the book:
Where’s the bathroom?
Last month, I wrote a blog post entitled “14 book signing tips for authors.” Last night, I kicked myself for not following all of my own advice.
Actually, things started out just right. I talked to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center well in advance and worked out the details. I would give a talk in their theater from 7:00 to 8:00 pm, and then sign books in their gift shop afterward. I publicized the talk and signing on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog (tip #1), leaving the local publicity to the Grizzly and Wolf Center — and I made sure the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce knew about it. I sent them some artwork for posters (tip #2) and packed my big sign. Since they told me that they regularly carried my book and it sold well, I assumed they’d have plenty of stock, but I tossed a few extras in the car, just in case.
See the problems? Hint: they’re both in that last sentence, and there are two key words in each problem. The first one is “I assumed” and the second one is “a few.” When I showed up a couple of hours early to check in (tip #4) and chat with the staff (tip #10), one of the first things the manager said to me was, “we sold out of your books, so I hope you have plenty of them out in the car!” Oops. I had five. Count ’em, five.
Luckily, West Yellowstone is a small, friendly town. The gift shop manager at the Grizzly and Wolf Center knows the owner of the bookstore in town, and called her. Oops again. They were out of stock, too. Fortunately for us, a very pleasant assistant manager at another store in town (thank you, Smith & Chandler) had a big stack of books they were willing to share.
So all went well. I gave my talk to a good-sized group, and there were plenty of books for the signing. I also learned my lesson. I should have paid more attention to my own tip #13 (see below), and I should have called the store before I left home to ask whether they would need books. Calling ahead might not have been adequate, though. My event was on a Sunday, and they had a good stock going into the weekend. She might have told me they had it covered. But it still would have been good to ask.
TIP #13: Carry some spare books. If you’re lucky, the signing will be a smash hit. With the economy down, though, booksellers are being cautious about over-ordering. That means that if your signing is fantastic, they just might run out of books. If you have a box or two in your trunk, you can grab them (be prepared to sell them to the store at the standard distribution discount!) and keep on going. If you don’t, the signing is done.
As always, everything comes down to communication. As writers, that’s our first job anyway, right?