Most debut authors like the Notables have spent years just aspiring to get published, and many words of advice have been written on the subject of perseverance. But we talk less about the transition that we go through when our debut book finally goes out into the world. How will our book be received? What can we expect? What might we fear?
Perhaps you've come across a story like this:
Meet John Doe. John Doe graduated from a top art school in the illustration program. He was the winner of a portfolio contest and sold his dummy at auction afterward. His book was published by (insert name of big 5 publishing house.) The publisher gave his book a ton of attention and spent a lot of money marketing it. He got six starred reviews, and he ended up on the bestseller list. They even sent him on a book tour! Everyone loved his book. And-as everyone expected--he won a big prize at the end of the year. All that, and under 30. Amazing!
Or not. Perhaps you fear a scenario like this:
Meet John Doe. John Doe was a totally unknown author. His book was published by (insert name of small, unknown publisher.) He only got a couple trade reviews, and they were disappointing. He had a book launch party, but not even his roommate came. He asked his local bookstore if they would stock his book, and they told him they would "look into it." (It never showed up.) The book was not reprinted, and didn't earn out.
Or maybe you are imagining something in between:
Meet John Doe. His book came out and it was... okay. He received several trade reviews, and they were mostly positive. He got one that was not-so-good. (It wasn't really as bad as he thought, but John was feeling a little bit raw right then.) He had a book launch party, and a lot of his friends turned up to support him. He signed a few books and enjoyed the cupcakes. The book didn't seem to make too much of a splash, but still John Doe was proud of his work and the positive reviews he received. He got a nice note from a teacher talking about how much their class enjoyed reading his book, and he printed it out to hang on his wall.
No matter how your experience turns out, it's helpful to think of your debut book as just one step along your journey. The same perseverance that got you a published book in the first place is the perseverance that will serve you through the rest of your writing or illustrating career. If you're feeling like John Doe in his worst-case scenario, looking at empty chairs at your book launch party, just remember: there's no reason you can't just try, try again. It doesn't mean you aren't cut out to be an author.
I'm a bit of an oddball in this group of debut authors, because I was lucky enough to illustrate several books before my debut as an author. But I can share some perspective that I gained from that experience. I began my publishing journey working with small publishers and without an agent's guidance. With each book I've worked on, I have improved as a storyteller. Each book gets a little more traction and recognition. I had to beg my local bookstore to stock a copy of my first book. Now, eight years later, I can hardly believe that the same bookstore put FISHERMAN AND THE WHALE in their window.
When I look back at my books, I'm glad that I was brave enough to give it a try, come what may--even if my story turned out to be a far cry from Cinderella. And now, as an author/illustrator, I can feel confident that with the right attitude and hard work, the best is yet to come.
Each book is a step on your journey, and your journey is your own. There's no right way to be a debut author!
The countdown is on for the launch Richard Ho's gorgeous book, RED ROVER: Curiosity on Mars! Before the exciting day, let's find out a bit more about Rich, the writer...
Notable19: Let's go back in time for this first question. What is the first piece of creative writing you remember writing?
Rich: I was a late bloomer. Many authors have memories of crafting poems or short stories or epic novels in verse while attending elementary school, but I didn't seriously entertain thoughts of creative writing until much later.
I believe I was 15 or 16. I was a huge Star Trek fan, and I teamed up with a good buddy of mine to co-write a spec script for an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. I would pay good money to find a copy of that script. I desperately want to re-read it after all these years. I think it was written on an ancient IBM computer and never backed up to disk, and I can't find a printed copy anywhere. I do remember that we titled the episode "Ambivalence," and since all that remains is the memory, I will say that it was spectacular.
Notable19: We are positive it was spectacular. How could it not be with you writing and ST:V involved? ;) Now that you are officially writing, what is your writing implement of choice?
Rich: Back when I was a magazine writer, I carried a little spiral notebook and a pen everywhere I went, like an old-timey reporter (no fedora, though). That was good for jotting down notes and transcribing interviews, but not much else. When I started to get into long-form creative writing, I abandoned the analog tools and went with the smallest laptop I could find (for affordability and portability). My current writing laptop is a Dell—every picture book manuscript I've written has been tapped into existence through its keys!
Notable19: Laptops have been a boon to writers! Sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov used to lug his heavy old manual typewriter to the beach when he was forced to take a vacation. Can you imagine? And where is your favorite place to write?
Rich: Thanks to my day job and my dad responsibilities, nearly all of my writing is accomplished on the train to and from work (a.k.a. Writing Office #1) or at my local Starbucks (a.k.a. Writing Office #2). I have a very hard time getting into writing mode at home, even after the kids are asleep. Probably because my couch emits a siren-like call that reliably overwhelms my exhausted and pitiful attempts at productivity. I try to make it to Writing Office #2 at least once a week, post-kiddo-bedtime, to get in a solid block of writing. The baristas know me by now, but I've never told them what I do when I sit there for hours on my laptop. They'll find out when I gift them a signed copy of RED ROVER in a few weeks!
Notable19: We have all heard the siren call of the couch! Besides resisting the call, what is hardest for you about writing? Easiest?
Rich: Easiest: Starting. Hardest: Finishing.
Starting a new manuscript is so much fun and so exciting. Your story is bursting out of your brain, demanding to be told, and you might have all of it figured out or you might have only the initial spark of an idea, but it's flowing whether you're ready or not.
And then reality sets in, and you realize you need to put in hours and hours more of hard work and sweat and tears and doubt and self-loathing and despair, and with every failed plot twist or bland story obstacle or useless supporting character or drab line of dialogue the ending recedes farther and farther into the distance, and you fear that you will never finish.
The caveat? When you DO finish, there are few experiences that are more euphoric and satisfying. But then, revisions…
Notable19: Ah, the joy of finishing a draft, and the scary prospect of facing the revision process. Speaking of scary, what is your ultimate writer nightmare?
Rich: Finishing a story that I adore and believe will sell in a multi-house auction with an astronomical advance and pre-emptive consideration for all major awards…
… only to see a Publishers Weekly deal announcement THAT VERY DAY for essentially the same exact story.
Notable19: That is truly a writer's nightmare. Conversely, what is your ultimate writer fantasy?
Rich: The above, but without the last part!
No, but seriously… just to receive a letter from a reader who tells me how one of my books made a difference in their life for the better. That would be my writerly dream-come-true.
Notable19: To have touched a reader's life is the way to achieve immortality. And finally, in one sentence, what does being a writer mean to you?
Rich: This answer changes by the second, but right now, being a writer means:
Spending countless hours alone, toiling in solitude to imprint your soul on a collection of words that will hopefully serve as a conduit between you and the rest of humanity.
by James Serafino
Writing a story is incredibly difficult. Illustrating a story is incredibly difficult. Why not do both and have twice the fun!?
When you are both the author and illustrator of your story you get all of the credit, but you also get all of the work and that work is complicated. Things will get messy; a whole story can fall apart right before your eyes and it can only be your fault. Here are some of my thoughts on trying, and mostly failing to, write and illustrate picture books.
The big problem when you are dealing with both halves of a story is it can be easy for the writer to interfere with the artist and the artist to want to ignore the writer. The only thing to do is separate these two quarreling brats for as long as possible. It won’t be easy and you won’t always be successful and I wish I had a third, positive thing to add, but I don’t. This will be a nightmare, you have chosen poorly.
However a story begins, I usually start with a drawing of a character or image in mind, it will have to be written out into the real world at some point. When you first begin to write don’t worry about grammar or sentences or story arc or character development. Just write down everything that this story is and wants to be and don’t stop writing until you know what this story of yours is actually about.
Then repeat the process for the art. What do the characters look like, what medium will be used? Draw and paint and experiment and brainstorm until you discover what the art can bring to and say about this story of yours. I first came to children’s books through picture making, so I focus on this aspect the most. I like to try to find a way for the art to impact the story somehow and when I find that path I know it is time to write a first draft.
Once you start a draft don’t give up on it until it's done, always try to get to the end of the story because figuring out the end will influence the beginning and each draft will be come stronger one after another. Now that you have a nice story written with a beginning, middle and end-- this may take weeks, months or years--take time to play with the art in context of your now written story. Are there parts of the story that could be better as art than words? What if that character was a coconut instead? The rule of thumb you’ll hear is show, don’t tell, and that is a good rule, but can be hard to follow because if you are like me, you like fun and silly words and listing as many of them as you can. Art can be a great storytelling tool, but sadly words may have to pay the price sometimes
It is so easy to get half way through a dummy when the illustrator half will have some great flash of inspiration that requires a total rewrite of the text by the writer and you are left with nothing but a shell of a book and not much else, seemingly back at square one.
My trick, for the first dummy draft, is to pretend that your script was written by someone else and came from your editor. You can’t change it and it is your job to illustrate the story as best you can. By forcing your way to the end, like in writing, you discover the parts that don’t work and know where to focus your editing. What text is better replaced by an image, what words are essential? Repeat this process as needed or until insanity takes you.
Now is the fun/scary part. You gotta stop separating them and let the artist and writer fight it out like the two great titans they are; because the two halves working together is what makes author/illustrated stories so unique and powerful. You can use art and images to tell some of the story leaving room for text to explore deeper into your character and the story’s meaning. There is no need to waste your precious word count on explaining a character's mood when you are in charge of that character’s expression in the art. You can set up a joke with one half and deliver the punch line with the other. These kinds of back and forth bits are the real juice of self author/illustrated books and they aren’t really available anywhere else. They are also the most fun, exciting, difficult, challenging, mystifying and satisfying bits to work on and always worth the effort.
I believe that by both writing and illustrating a story you can lay down deep and powerful roots that can grow into a tale that is greater than the sum of its parts and has real meaning and value to those lucky enough to appreciate all of your hard work.
Be sure to follow James on Instagram and Facebook!
by Sara Shacter
Ah, social media.
A mere fifteen minutes on Twitter whips my insecurity demon into action:
“Someone who’s not you just signed a multi-book contract and won a prestigious award and hit the best seller’s list with a debut title!!" (Demon rolls eyes.) “Loser.”
In our heads, we all know that people trumpet their successes, not their struggles, on the Internet. But still our hearts ache.
Well, ache no more!
I give you…(drum roll, please)
The Social Media Antidote: my 2019 picture book Just So Willow.
The story of this book spans millennia. Literally!
(Screen goes dark. Light comes up on a much younger Sara…)
Just So Willow began as The Just So Hippo, featuring Greta the hippo instead of Willow the polar bear. It was the tale of a type-A hippo, trying to play in clean, freshly fallen snow without “ruining” it. I brought an initial draft to my critique group, made revisions, and was gifted with a stuffed hippo, as inspiration:
Several versions later, during a professional workshop, an editor expressed interest. Wow! Would this be my first contract?
Uh, no. The editor’s Editorial Director sort of hated Greta.
I regrouped and considered the feedback I’d received. Revisions followed: I honed my word choice, sharpened the opening, and changed the format. I started to submit (via SNAIL MAIL – eek!).
In 1999 (note all the work I’d done before this date!) an editor sent me a lovely letter, asking for revisions. Woo hoo! I knew how rare it was to get an editorial letter – she must really love Greta, right? To address her comments, I gave Greta brothers and sisters, amped up the humor, and changed the ending. I turned it around in only a month.
I was under the faulty impression that the editor was sitting by her mailbox, waiting for my brilliant revision. So I rushed.
Cue years of revising and submitting. Greta gained parents, lost parents, then lost her siblings. Word count rose and fell. I made dummies to get a feel for page turns. Yet, the stack of revisions and rejections grew:
Finally, in 2014 (yes, 2014!!), I received a critique from editor Brett Duquette at SCBWI-Illinois’ annual conference, inviting me to revise and resubmit. His comments echoed some I had heard before: the manuscript was too quiet; Greta needed to interact with other characters; the ending didn’t quite work. But this time, I received a brilliant nugget: the ending didn’t work because it didn’t match the beginning in tone. The opening was funnier and punchier.
I battened down the hatches and dove in, deleting everything but the first four lines – the strongest lines of the manuscript. I did not rush. My next version – substantially different from all the rest – took over four months.
I did two more revisions for Brett, during which Greta became Willow, and in 2016 (note: two years after the conference) Brett offered me a contract with Sterling.
Finally, finally, my story was a book.
If you saw my Twitter feed, with news leading up to Willow’s launch, it might seem like she rolled out of my imagination, fully formed.
There’s a story behind every story. It’s likely full of struggle and failure and frustration. That’s the story that matters. It’s what makes us better writers and what makes our stories shine.
You are not alone. Don’t let the Internet fool you.
Be sure to follow Sara on Twitter and Facebook!
by Teresa Robeson
That may be the motto on Galaxy Quest (one of my favorite movies) but it’s also a good motto for writers and illustrators trying to get into publishing because everything takes forever in the business and you will very likely want to throw in the towel at least several times a year if not twice every hour.
I know this from personal experience. Just how long did it take to get my first book published?
Well, six years elapsed between the first draft to the release date. But, if you start from when I made the decision to be a writer, then I’d say it took me about three decades!
The year was 1990. My husband was having a blast doing his Ph.D. and I was stuck in a mind-numbingly dull job. I tried taking up creative hobbies to compensate: I developed an interest in origami...
and I signed up for a “fine arts for non-majors” class.
Both were fun, but something still felt like it was missing. I mulled this over while I was reading stacks of picture books and middle-grade novels.
What had I been doing on almost a daily basis since I learned English in third grade after immigrating from Hong Kong to Canada?
Eat good food?
Yes, that, too. But the answer was creative writing. Growing up, I wrote poetry, and jokes, and puzzles for my little sister to solve. And, in 1990, I wrote many, many letters to West Coast friends back home because I was stuck on the East Coast in that mind-numbingly dull job.
Letters were all right, but I needed more. As Isaac Asimov said, and I paraphrase, to have your writing published is the only good way to leave your legacy. So how does one become a published writer? I started reading Writer’s Digest magazine to find out and stumbled across an ad for The Institute of Children’s Literature.
Right after taking the class, I sent one piece I wrote for an assignment out to a couple of magazines, and received a call from Paula Morrow, then editor of Ladybug, asking if they could buy the story.
A sale! On my first try! I held it together long enough to finish the call and then screamed for joy.
When I made some more sales in the next few years I thought I was motoring along reasonably well in my publishing career. But then a dry spell hit. Between homeschooling my kids (my second child had special needs) and getting more rejections than acceptances, I cut back on writing. Drastically. I felt defeated and exhausted.
I tried to fill the empty feeling of not writing by doing other creative endeavors again. With kids in tow this time, I made paper (and some photography)
and dabbled in soap-making.
I also ate more good food (thanks to hubby who is as excellent a cook as he is a scientist).
But none of that satisfied the itch for something greater and more meaningful (my foodie self is incredulous, “What could be more meaningful than gastronomic delights??”). So, in 2010, I dove back in with greater determination.
I took more classes, for writing and for illustrating, and I took more chances, applying to any and all grants and opportunities that I qualified for, and joining critique groups where I had to bare my writing soul but, in return, got tons of good feedback that made my writing stronger. I still received a lot of NOs, but I also had some successes because I put myself out there.
Some of the lucky breaks include winning or placing in (runner-up, honorable mentions) a few writing contests, which boosted my confidence, signing with an agent (though she quit after we were together for just one year), and getting picked by Jane Yolen as a nonfiction mentee in the We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program. The story Jane worked with me on caught an editor’s interest, and with that interest, I signed with my second agent who has gone on to sell another book for me.
I’m not an overnight success, that’s for sure, but there are almost no overnight success stories. But I followed a path to success that anyone can take, and here are the 4 easy steps. Hah.
1) Learn the craft of writing. If you’re writing picture books, also learn the craft of illustrating or how a picture book is put together. Read as many how-to books as you can and take courses. Some of my favorite classes are listed on the Resources page of my website.
2) Start submitting. Bylines in magazines and smaller publications are a great way to build a resume and experience. Winning writing contests (go for the free ones unless you have money to spare) can help your self-confidence and also look good in a query letter.
3) Join a community. SCBWI provides great resources and support. My first ever illustration sale was to their Bulletin (with a lovely acceptance letter from Steven Mooser). Be a part of a critique group, or three, or at least get one critique partner. Your local SCBWI chapter can help you or you can join other organizations, free and paying, that can also connect you with creative, e.g. Kidlit411, Sub It Club, and 12x12 Picture Book Challenge. These places will also help you learn more about the business side of publishing.
4) Settle in comfortably for the long haul. The old song goes, “You can’t hurry love.” Turns out, this is twice as true for the writing world. Take a break if you need to when you get too down about it, like I did, but be sure to jump back in…because getting published is a lot about “right time, right place” and you never know when that will be for you.
Follow Teresa on Twitter and Instagram!
by Stephanie Lucianovic
True to writerly form, I agonized for days and weeks over what to write for this post.
I asked my Twitter.
I asked my cats.
I asked my kids.
Inspiration did not strike.
Then today my oldest son asked permission to read my book while he ate his lunch. It’s the first book I ever wrote. And it’s about death.
Nope, not that one.
This is a book that only recently reappeared in my life when my mom sent it with a bunch of other stuff from my bedroom in Minneapolis.
I had totally forgotten that I wrote it when I took a bookmaking class at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1985.
I had therefore totally forgotten that I wrote a story about a murderous doll who killed everyone in the story. When I was 12.
Given my mother’s love for all things dark and creepy, it’s not all that surprising that I wrote dark and creepy story as a kid. In fact, writing a story about a killer doll that I clearly ripped off from an old Twilight Zone episode is not even close to the craziest way my childhood as an amateur author intersects with my adulthood as a professional author.
But we’ll get to that.
If you follow me on Twitter or read my cover reveal interview with Mr. Schu, you will be familiar with my banging on about how much I adore the Edward Gorey-inspired font used in The End of Something Wonderful. I bang on about that font because along with her collection of Charles Addams books, my dark and creepy mother also has every Edward Gorey book ever written.
And this is where a strange story gets even stranger, Irene Vandervoort — who designed The End of Something Wonderful and is therefore responsible for the font used in it — has NEVER MET ME.
Dun dun DUN!
It’s totally true. Irene and I haven’t ever spoken or emailed or anything. She didn’t know about my dark and creepy childhood, full of Ouija boards, seances, voodoo dolls, and Edward Gorey books, and she certainly didn’t know I authored the 1985 thriller Family Deaths of 1984 (or Neptune).
And yet somehow she knew.
I think this is the true brilliance of illustrators, art directors, and book designers. They take a text and make these amazing decisions and choices that delicately pull elements out of the story — elements that possibly even the writer didn’t know or remember were there or could be pulled out.
Take the endpapers for The End of Something Wonderful:
Reader, I literally burst into happy, hysterical tears when I saw those endpapers.
They are the endpapers I didn’t know I wanted.
They are the endpapers I didn’t know the book needed to finely highlight all that is darkly funny and yet emotionally affecting about the text and illustrations.
Those endpapers are the icing on the funereal cake.
The choice of a font or the design of endpapers are subtle, almost invisible forces that add so much to the overall feeling a reader will end up gleaning from that book. As a reader, you should look for them, notice them, think about how and why they were chosen. Because they were chosen for a reason and they were chosen to make the book even better than it was when it started out as an embryonic Word document on someone’s laptop.
So here is my advice to text-only picture book authors: if you like the way your book looks — and not just the illustrations but all of it — ask your editor for the name and social media handles of whoever designed it.
Then thank them.
Give them shout outs when you talk about the book.
Tag them when others say great things about the book so they can see it too.
Because they are working from a source a genius that I, mere word pusher, cannot comprehend and therefore stand in complete awe of.
They are also the people who will create an Edward Gorey-ish font because somehow they divined that when you were 12 years old you wrote a book about a murderous doll and that you “dedecated” that book to Edward Gorey.
Be sure to follow Stephanie on Twitter for your daily dose of humor, wisdom, and social outrage!
We are so excited to feature Marcie F. Atkins, author of Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature, on our interview today!
Notable19: As the Do-Re-Mi song goes, “Let’s start at the very beginning”: are you a first born/middle/family baby/only child? Do you think that has affected your creative life at all?
Marcie: I’m a first born and have lots of first born characteristics--fiercely independent, Type A, overachiever, etc. It has definitely affected my creative life. I’m always fascinated with getting work done, being efficient, and I’m not afraid to just go do something. I can also have trouble relaxing, so that is often hard on my creative life.
Notable19: You were probably every parent’s dream as a kid, what with wanting to get things done and not waiting until the last minute. So, thinking about your childhood, what is a moment from growing up that is crystal clear in your mind?
Marcie: Sitting on the steps of my very first house, not wanting to go downstairs in the dark to get something for my mom. Why? Well, because the Incredible Hulk lived in the bathroom down there.
Notable19: The Incredible Hulk?! That’s a bit of an odd fear for a little kid. Speaking of odd, growing up, what was the weirdest job you ever had?
Marcie: I shredded medical records one summer in a closet with a ginormous shredder that could have eaten my arm. It was mind-numbing. I wish podcasts had been around back then. We had walkmans and headphones, but they had cords, and I didn’t want them to be eaten up by the machine.
Notable19: The thought of being chewed up by a giant shredder probably helped keep you awake even though the job was mind-numbingly dull. Now that the shredder is no longer a threat, what keeps you from falling asleep these days, and what do you think about when that happens?
Marcie: Usually, I’m blaming myself for having too much caffeine, but I’ve often had books keep me awake at night. I had the beginning of a middle grade novel come to me late at night. I managed to write it down in the dark. It was my first novel and will likely never be published, but I did love the way it started.
Notable19: Many writers definitely think about their manuscripts while lying in bed. Besides in bed in the middle of night (LOL!), where is your favorite place to write?
Marcie: My favorite place to write is my office. You can often find me there at 5:00am, sipping green tea, and sitting on my exercise ball, trying to get the words to come. I’m very lucky to have a dedicated space.
However, I really can write just about anywhere. In the summer, I love writing on my porch. On Saturday mornings, you can often find me at a coffee shop with two friends for our mostly-weekly write-ins. I also carry a writing bag with me just about everywhere I go. With two active kids, I often find myself with 10-15 minutes to write in a parking lot somewhere.
Notable19: Those all sound like great places to write! But what happens when you get writer’s block or something? Do you have a surefire way to get past the blank page, such as writing exercises or prompts?
Marcie: Morning pages à la Julia Cameron. There was a time when I’d lost a number of people who were dear to me. I struggled to write at all. I stared at my computer every morning and nothing. I decided to do morning pages and not worry if I got anything else done. Looking back on it, I realize that’s how handled my grief, though I couldn’t name it at the time. Now, when I’m stuck, I realize that doing morning pages can help me process some of what I’m trying to figure out.
Notable19: Besides having writer’s block, what is hardest for you about writing? Easiest?
Marcie: Getting words down on the page is the hardest for me. I subscribe to the mantra, “Get it down, then fix it up,” but that doesn’t mean getting it down is easy. The easiest thing is getting excited about new ideas.
Notable19: When you’re not writing, or if it’s just a blah, rainy sort of day, what do you like to do?
Marcie: I love sitting on my front porch with a good book.
Notable19: Of course! Any author worth her salt is always reading. Stepping beyond your front porch, if you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
Marcie: I’d likely go back to Thailand, where I grew up.
Notable19: How very cool that you grew up in Thailand! We can probably guess what your answer might be to the next question, then: what is a food you couldn’t live without?
Marcie: Thai food. I live in a place that has lots and lots of Thai restaurants. One of my friends from boarding school in Malaysia lives about 20 minutes away from me now (it’s a small world…), we try out a new Thai restaurant each time we go out. There seems to be an endless supply, but we have our favorites. I’m especially fond of Thai street food, most especially Khao Soy, a Northern Thai dish.
Notable19: Maybe you need to create a blog reviewing and recommending Thai restaurants you’ve been to! One last fun one to finish up: what’s the most well known book you’ve never read?
Marcie: I’m pretty sure I’ve never read any Jane Austen books. But I did read my way around the library as a kid. With no TV, I read a book a day during my elementary and middle school years.
Notable19: We bet you still do read your way around every library you live near. Thanks for sharing with our readers a bit about yourself today! Bet you got most of us hungry for Thai food now.
Follow Marcie on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Also check out our Books page to see where you can preorder Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature!
by Hannah Stark
Have you ever considered creating an educator’s guide or activity to go along with your book? There are so many audiences to consider; teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, parents, caregivers, and kids and there are so many possibilities when it comes to what you might make!
For the last fifteen years I’ve been teaching elementary school. I’ve received tons of educator guides to go with books and often search online for activities to supplement a lesson or text. While some publishing houses create educator guides or coloring pages, I’ve noticed some authors and illustrators also create their own. These are posted on professional websites, handed out at school events, distributed at book events, or emailed with newsletters. This post aims to help authors and illustrators come up with ideas to best supplement their book.
The Fun Stuff
Some of the easiest things you can create are printables that are purely for fun. These include mazes, unscramble the word puzzles, word searches, coloring pages, and simple games. I think of these as universal activities because everyone pretty much knows what to do when they see them. While they don’t serve that much educational purpose, they do work our brains in different ways. Here is a simple set of cards I made for a game of memory. Adults just need to print them and kids can help cut them out. Teachers like print and use activities. If there is too much prep work they might steer clear but a game like memory can become an easy classroom center after reading a book aloud.
Arts and Crafts
As an educator and a mom, my Pinterest feed is stock full of “craftivities.” Craftivities are art-based activities that tend to be SUPER cute. These hands on projects can do great things for book promotion, especially with eye-catching photos on Pinterest or Instagram. Educators like to put art projects up on bulletin boards and homeschoolers are always looking for hands on projects to break up the day.
Craftivities can be super simple like making a mask or a puppet of a character from your book. They might be a simple origami activity or what teachers call “foldables.” An example of this might be a fortune-teller. Consider projects that include reuse of materials to keep supply costs down. To create a craftivity you just need to supply directions and some photos of the process or product.
Creating supplements that can be used for deeper thinking about your book can feel daunting! Am I being developmentally appropriate? What grade level teaches this content? Is this how teachers would do it? My first piece of advice would be to talk to teachers that work with the age group your book is aimed towards. Get a sense of what kids can handle academically. Ask a teacher to help you develop an idea or ask for feedback about how to word things more clearly. Teachers are helpers and we love to share our knowledge.
It is also helpful to think about what subject(s) you’d like to create for. Maybe you can tie in some math or a science experiment? It is helpful to take a look at the Common Core Standards for you’re the grade level of your readers. While not all states follow the Common Core, they can give a sense of what is generally expected for kids at a certain age. For example, Kindergarteners are expected to be able to count by tens. This is a page I made using my main character Trucker that aligns with this standard.
There are also many ways to integrate literacy skills. You might create a list of discussion questions. Since my story is for ages 3-6 I created a list of questions to prompt discussion on my website. These include images of trucks and trains from a Pinterest board and it is intended to help develop a young child’s verbal skills.
In the classroom, the list of discussion questions below can monitor comprehension and develop key skills for young learners. This includes sequencing events, cause and effect, character and setting, problem and solution, and message. These are all foundational skills in the Kindergarten to Grade 4 classrooms.
One other idea is to write a paired text to go with your book. Paired texts are generally thought of as fiction and non-fiction texts that can be somehow paired because they connect around a topic. I could write an informational piece about trucks or trains or junctions to go with my book. This provides educators with another way to engage your book in the classroom. For a Kindergarten class doing a unit on transportation, these resources support curriculum, save educators some time and energy looking for another resource, and help develop students as narrative and informative readers.
I hope this post has helped my fellow authors and illustrators become inspired to create resources to supplement their books. If you’d like to see more of the printables I’ve created for TRUCKER AND TRAIN please visit my webpage https://www.hannahcarinastark.com/ .
We are JUST SO delighted to showcase Notable19 member Sara Shacter, author of JUST SO WILLOW!
Notable 19s: From the cover, Willow looks to be the cutest polar bear...friendly enough to be a pet, which leads us to ask: did you have a pet growing up, and has it made its way into any of your stories?
Sara: My only pet was a goldfish named Marilyn, after Marilyn Monroe. The name was my mom’s idea – Marilyn Monroe had very expressive lips, and my mom likened them to a fish’s mouth opening and closing. I know. A bit of a stretch.
Sadly, Marilyn was rather mean-spirited. When I bought her a friend, she ate it. Yet what she lacked in manners, she made up for in fortitude. I was a terrible pet owner. I wouldn’t clean her tank until the water became somewhat opaque. Occasionally I forgot to feed her. But she lived for 13 years.
Marilyn has not appeared in any of my stories, but (spoiler alert…) I thought of her while reading Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates. That book is hilarious.
Notable19s: Cannibal fish and being eaten by classmates sound like the stuff of nightmares and would make a person have trouble falling asleep. LOL! What do you think about when you have trouble falling asleep?
Sara: For better or for worse, I often think about my Work In Progress. The peace and quiet lets me ponder plot points and turn phrases in my head. On the upside, I often get inspired and scribble deep thoughts on the notepad that resides on my nightstand. On the downside, I get so involved in my thoughts that I don’t fall asleep! Bit of a vicious cycle.
Notable19s: Warm milk might help with falling asleep; sadly, the tryptophan in turkey does not help with sleep. Now that we’ve got everyone hungry, what is a food you could not live without?
Sara: Bread. Warm, crusty bread with buttery deliciousness melting on top. My husband calls me “Gluten Girl.” I’d make a good medieval prisoner at the top of a crumbling castle tower, eating nothing but bread and water. But it would have to be high-quality bread. No mass marketed white bread for me.
Notable19s: Now that we know what your favorite food is, how about your favorite TV show as a kid?
Sara: I didn’t really have a favorite, but I watched a ridiculous amount of The Brady Bunch. (This may reveal my approximate age…) I logged so many hours that my mom could be in different room, hear the introductory lines of dialogue, and yell, “Isn’t this the one where Marcia gets hit in the nose with a football?” I should really apologize to my mom.
Notable19s: Too funny! One final question for you, so we will ask about the craft. What is the hardest for you about writing? The easiest?
I’m not sure the words “hardest” and “easiest” really apply. When an aspect of craft is difficult, it’s also challenging and exciting. When an aspect of craft seems “easy,” I think it’s more a matter of it feeling joyful than actually being “easy.”
That said, what I struggle with most is the blank page. There are SO many ways to tell a story! I’m a tad type-A, so it can feel overwhelming to seek the “right” beginning. I try to remind myself that none of my words are etched into anyone’s soul. Revision is good! In fact, that is what I enjoy most – revising. Shaping a draft until it sings is incredibly gratifying.
Notable19s: There certainly are many ways to tell a story, and we’re so glad you told yours!
Please be sure to follow Sara on Twitter or Facebook and visit her website for updates and be the first to find out when JUST SO WILLOW is available for preorder!
By Brooke Boynton-Hughes
You sold your picture book manuscript! Huzzah! And now it will become a BOOK! With illustrations! But, will the illustrator capture your vision? Will they draw your characters just as you hoped they would? And what's taking so long, anyway?!
My author/illustrator debut, BRAVE MOLLY (Chronicle), came out earlier this year, and while it is the first book that I've authored, it's the 9th book (out of 10) that I've illustrated. I've heard from author friends that they can sometimes feel a bit in the dark about what exactly is going on with their manuscript once it has been picked up by an editor.
While I can't speak to what exactly is happening on the publisher's end, I'm hoping I can shed a little light on what's happening on the illustrator side of things while you're waiting for months, or years, for your manuscript to become a real-life illustrated book.
While I'm sure my process shares similarities with other illustrators, every illustrator has their own way of working. Please take what follows with a grain of salt.
Step 1: To Illustrate, or Not to Illustrate!
My agent sends me an email with the good news that an editor has a manuscript that they'd like me to illustrate. Occasionally an editor or art director will ask an illustrator to do a sample illustration before officially offering the illustrator the job, sort of like an actor auditioning for a part.
If I'm excited enough about the story to want to spend at least a year of my life with it, then I usually say, "Yes!" Sometimes an illustrator just doesn't connect with a story, although, there are a lot of reasons why an illustrator might pass on a manuscript: scheduling conflicts, already juggling too many projects, stuff going in their personal life, etc. etc.
Step 2: Hello, Publishing Folks!
Before starting a book, I talk with the editor and/or art director about the vision for the book. Sometimes this conversation is short and sweet and sometimes it’s more involved and covers things like color palette, age and gender of characters, or any other number of things that might be relevant to the story. At the very least, technicalities like trim size and page count are discussed at this stage.
Step 3: The Layout!
I start each book by creating thumbnail layouts. Thumbnail layouts are small, rough sketches of every spread in the book. Creating tiny, rough layouts helps get me thinking about what I want to convey without getting too caught up with the details.
At this stage, I'm thinking about how the illustrations can add to the story without just restating visually what the text says with words. I'm also thinking about how the visual pacing of the story works with the pacing of the plot and trying to decide which moments of the story should be double page spreads, single spreads, or vignettes.
Sometimes an editor has already paginated the text, and sometimes I work out the pagination. It depends on the editor and on the story.
Step 4: More Layouts!
Once I have a rough thumbnail layout that I like, I re-draw it more clearly and at a larger size. The new, cleaner sketches give a good sense of the composition of each spread and of the visual storytelling that's taking place throughout the book.
Step 5: Character sketches!
It usually takes a while to figure out what a character looks like, which for me starts by drawing lots of heads. I have pages and pages of drawings of just heads (I'm pretty sure this isn't normal…? But it works for me).
None of the picture book manuscripts I've illustrated contained any indication of what the characters looked like (other than age), which left lots of room for me to play and explore. Once I feel I have the characters figured out, I'll re-draw them side by side and do a digital color study in Photoshop. (In reality, I'm often going back and forth between working on the character sketches and the layout).
Step 6: Waiting!
This is when I email everything to the art director and wait. Sometimes the wait can be a week or two, and sometimes it can be a few months. The process of illustrating a picture book is collaborative and each party needs time to do their part of the job. This is usually when I catch up on personal projects, or if I'm juggling more than one book at a time, I'll switch over to the other project.
Step 7: Notes!
The editor and/or art director will send notes on the layout and character sketches. I make revisions based on their feedback and email them the new version. Rinse and repeat.
Step 8: Full-size Drawings! (My favorite step!)
Once the editor and art director have approved the layout and the character design, I start on full-size drawings. I work directly on my final watercolor paper. (Some illustrators do their full-size sketches on tracing paper and then transfer the drawing to their final support. Also, I want to mention again that every illustrator’s process is different. This is just how I do things.)
Step 9: More waiting!
I scan the finished drawings, email them to the art director, and wait for feedback. I think this is usually when the editor or art director will send the images to the author for review (but don't quote me on that).
Step 10: More Notes! More revisions!
Since I’ve worked out most of the bigger visual problems in the layout stage, there usually aren't too many revisions at this stage. But sometimes, for one reason or another, things need to be adjusted and there might be a lot of back and forth: revise something, re-send it to the art director, wait for notes, revise it again, etc.
Step 11: Stuff happens!
Twice while in the midst of illustrating picture books (and both times with the same, very patient publisher) I had to have surgery rather unexpectedly, which meant that the books had to be pushed back a few months. If your book is pushed back a list, it might be that the illustrator has to deal with life stuff. (Or it might just be because your illustrator is slow. Sometimes we can be slow.)
Step 12: Final Art!
Once I've received approval on the full size pencil drawings, I ink all of the line work and then paint all of the images one by one. Instead of painting the illustrations in order from beginning to end, I jump around so that if the way I paint changes slightly as I go, the progression won't be noticeable. I also jump around so that I can tackle the more complicated images at the beginning when I'm feeling fresh and save the more straightforward images for the end when I'm often battling drawing-hand fatigue.
Step 13: Fingers Crossed!
I scan the final images, email them off, and hope that I get the go-ahead to send the original art via snail mail. Sometimes changes need to be made, and since I work with traditional media (instead of working digitally), this sometimes means that I have to re-do an illustration completely. Sometimes I'll repaint just a small section of an image and ask the art director to Photoshop it into the rest of the illustration.
Step 14: Proofs!
Once the publisher has my finished art, they make scans of the images and the art director lays in all of the text and works their art director magic. Then the publisher has proofs made which they send to the illustrator for approval (I think they usually send proofs to the author, too). Sometimes colors need to be adjusted, or errors are caught and fixed.
Step 15: We made a book! Together!
Once everyone approves the proofs, the book is off to the printer! Hooray!
I imagine that it would be incredibly nerve-wracking to hand your manuscript over to an illustrator who may not envision things the same way you do. But, just as an author wouldn't want someone standing over their shoulder telling them which words to use where, an illustrator wouldn't want someone telling them exactly how something should look. An illustrator's job is not to re-create exactly what the author has envisioned, but rather, to bring their own, unique vision and voice to a story.
So be patient and trust that the illustrator of your picture book loves your manuscript just as much as you do and is doing everything they can to help bring your story to life. And together we’ll make a beautiful book!
We are a group of writers and illustrators who have debut books (actual debuts , debuts as author-illustrators, or debuts with medium/large publishers) forthcoming in 2019. Thank you for joining us on our exciting journey!