Note: When I got Johnell’s interview questions, she asked about two things — art notes and rhyme. These are two topics that come up often in the picture book writing community. And these are two topics that I had many questions about when I started writing.
The ONLY reason I have published books, and that I think I have some insight to share, is that while I asked questions and thought about the answers, I worked on my craft. I don’t feel any advice will make much sense or help you unless you’re constantly working on and improving your craft to apply the advice.
Think about all the advice, rules, and information that we hear about writing picture books:
Pacing and page turns
I wouldn’t have gained understanding about any of these things, if I’d just read articles and blog posts and asked questions.
Pam Calvert is a former science teacher turned award-winning children’s author. She’s best known for her Princess Peepers series, but recently launched her new chapter book series Brianna Bright Ballerina Knight, illustrated by Liana Hee. Pam has mentored other writers through the Writing With the Stars mentorship program and through her own informative site, Woven With Pixie Dust. Pam has two character-driven series under her belt and a soon-to-be-third underway. She’s joined us to talk about characters. Thank you, Pam!
What made Princess Peepers a character that could translate across several stories?
She’s a quirky character that has a personality. If you don’t know your character, you can’t write more stories about them. Princess Peepers loves everyone no matter what they look like or who they are. They could be an ugly troll or a tiny dragonfly, she’ll love it. Which is quite different from many people who put labels on things. And that comes through the stories. She also is a people pleaser, which is one of her faults. Your character must have flaws they have to work through to make a story—this causes problems, something every story must have! Also, PP always loses her glasses, one way or another, and this allows for comedic situations that make children laugh when she can’t see what’s going on. Put all that together on top of some of her silly catch phrases, and you have a good series character!
With Brianna Bright, did you purposefully plan to have a character driven series and if so, how did you go about crafting her in a way from the beginning to ensure that she could last across a series?
I did. My editor came to me and asked if I could write a strong girl book. She wanted a commercial book, too, which lends itself to series.
So…I knew ballet books were very popular with girls, and Two Lions didn’t have one. But I wanted to do something different. At the time, I was reading and watching Game of Thrones. Arya Stark, one of the characters, was this strong princess type character that didn’t want to be in frilly dresses. She wanted to be a knight like her brothers (they didn’t call them this in the story but that’s basically what they are.) That gave me the idea to make my ballerina princess into a knight as well. I worked backward to create the story with what if’s…what if a clumsy ballerina also wanted to become a knight? What would happen? How would she go about finding her way? Then the story basically wrote itself.
The key to a great story is an even greater idea. Giving my ballerina princess a sword had never been done before. Sure, there’s princess knights out there, but there’s only ONE princess ballerina knight. That’s Brianna Bright. Continue reading →
You’ve worked in animation for a long time. As such, you are quite familiar with storyboarding. Can you talk about the role storyboarding plays in creating an animated movie?
For people unfamiliar with storyboards I’ll often define it as making the comic book version of the movie. You’re drawing out the story shot by shot. It’s a lot like being the director because the storyboard artist reads the scripts and starts breaking things down into different shots and you’re making decisions like, should this be a long shot, medium shot or a close up, a pan shot, a dolly shot. You’re concerned about the composition, the acting and the transitions from shot to shot. You have various story points that you have to keep in mind, and in storyboarding, the artists think up much of the visual humor, and visual interest.
When you get a script, how do you go about creating the pictures to go along with it?
As I read a script, I get images in my mind and I’ll make a little thumbnail sketch or write a little note in the margins. I’d probably read through it a few different times and then start sketching things out. After getting the first sketches done then you have to review and edit things. In the old days we used to pin up sketches on a cork board so you could move things around, add new drawings or pull some down. You are looking for the flow of the story, the entertainment value and checking to see if you hit all the important story points for that scene.
Arree Chung is the author-illustrator of Ninja!, Ninja! Attack of the Clan, Ninja Claus!, andOut!. He’s also the founder and host of the Storyteller Academy, a class for aspiring writers and illustrators. He left his production scheduling job at Pixar to enroll at the Art Center College of Design. Arree graciously agreed to share his thoughts on a technique he teaches in his class. Thank you, Arree!
What is a story map?
A story map is kind of like mind mapping, where you write down all your ideas then group or organize them into a sequence, keeping in mind the logical flow from the beginning, to the inciting event, to the end. Here’s an example:
I can see how this would be valuable for longer works, but how does it help with picture books?
Story mapping is helpful in many ways. First, it can help you capture ideas and quickly connect them. Story mapping also helps you plot several variations of a story. The hardest part in making up a story are the endless possibilities so using a story mapping strategy helps you nail down the story more quickly.Continue reading →
Define concept. How is it different from an idea? How is it different from a plot? For example, what’s the concept, idea, and plot of say Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus? What is ‘high concept?’
An idea is something quick and a bit vague. Non-specific. It lacks details. Before I wrote 7 Ate 9, I had the idea to write about a ‘popular schoolyard joke.’ Once I had that initial idea, I fleshed it out to a concept, to write about the riddle ‘Why is six afraid of seven?.’ Finally, the story’s premise or plot is the backstory of the joke itself—can Private ‘I’ help 6 figure out if his days are numbered?
7 Ate 9‘s premise is ‘high concept,’ meaning you can boil the essence of the story down to a sentence or two–but not just any sentence. Many stories can be explained that quickly. To be ‘high concept’, the premise has to be unique and make immediate, head-smacking sense. You’ve never seen the concept before but it seems like you should have! People can instantly envision how things might play out. They may even say, ‘That’s genius! Why didn’t I think of that?!’
An idea for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus might be to write a story from an unusual, uncommon point of view. (But honestly, I have no idea what Mo WIllems was thinking, LOL, other than he was thinking genius.) The concept might be to have the book character ask the child reader permission to do something outrageous, with the child getting to act like an adult and say ‘no,’ turning the tables on the usual child role. The plot is to have the pigeon ask the reader permission to drive a bus.
So, if I got this right, let’s say the concept for They All Saw a Cat is something like, “A cat is viewed in a different way depending on which creature sees him.” Would that be high concept? And is it safe to say that the concept is the bones and plot is the flesh?Continue reading →
I met Tara two years ago in our critique group while she was still polishing manuscripts. Shortly after, she had three picture book contracts and an agent. She’d been seriously writing for children for 18 months, but she’d been absorbing the craft of picture books for years. She’s sharing her story with us and announcing a few details about the upcoming WWTS mentorship contest. Thank you, Tara!
Tara, your debut picture book, I Am Famous, published by Albert Whitman & Co., will be released March 1, 2018, followed by Shark Nate-O (little bee*, April 3, 2018). You have a sequel for I Am Famous under contract with Albert Whitman (spring 2019), you also have a fourth picture book that went to a multi-house auction, and two more picture books under contract, none of which we can talk about yet. What did you do to get to this point?
Well, I put in a lot of time reading picture books before I ever started writing them. I owned my own toy and book store. I specialized ages 0-6, so the only books I sold were picture books. I loved them, and I had to learn what made them work in order to be a successful retailer. I would get ideas from the store, and I told myself that someday, I would try to write them. But with three little kids, a traveling husband, and a store, there was no time for that. Then my family relocated to the Charlotte area for my husband’s job, and I no longer had the store. Even though I had no writing experience (but tons of reading experience), I decided to bring out all those ideas and try my hand at it. I sent my first manuscript to my sister to review. She sent it back half changed, so we became co-authors. I joined SCBWI. I found the online kidlit community. I met critique partners. I studied craft. I joined 12 x 12. I attended SCBWI conferences. I kept up my knowledge of the industry by reading voraciously.
During this process, I became obsessed with the musical Hamilton. If you already have Hamalaria, you know how amazing Hamilton is. If you are not familiar with it, you need to be. There is a reason editors, agents, writers and creative types in general are obsessed with it. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a lyrical genius. And Alexander Hamilton was a bit obsessive in his learning and writing because he was “young, scrappy and hungry” and clawing his way up to the top. He did not rest on his laurels and never “threw away his shot.” Continue reading →
I first met Leah in our regional writing group nearly five years ago. Now her debut middle grade novel is hitting shelves with glowing reviews. Leah’s storyOne Shadow on the Wall follows the life of Mor, a young Senegalese boy who makes a promise to his father to keep the family together. After his father dies, Mor faces pressure from his aunt who wants to split him and his sisters apart and from a local gang that wants him on their side. Leah found the inspiration for Mor’s story while visiting Senegal and seeing a young boy sitting on a beach wall–she wondered what his day would be like and the idea for a story bloomed. Thank you, Leah and good luck with your amazing new book!
There have been so many lessons along the way to writing this book but the biggest is probably—cherish glimpses of possibilities. That is how this book started . . . because of a glimpse at a boy on a beach wall in Senegal.
But here are ten other takeaways thus far:
Be patient with my writing and myself. When and if things are meant to happen, they will.
(This takeaway goes along with the first.) Don’t rush . . . nothing ever turns out how it should when I rush.
Be kind to my writing and myself. It is okay if it isn’t perfect on the first, eighth or ninth try. Keep trying.
Welcome the mistakes, because they often lead to some unbelievable possibilities.
Treasure true friendships and writing time. They are both rare gifts.
Do not try and walk someone else’s path. Your journey is yours for a reason.
Write for the kid you used to be.
Write for the kid you wish you were.
Write for the kid you hope to see.
Lastly, and probably the most important for the long haul and for our spiritual wellbeing: Celebrate and appreciate the small successes even more than the great ones.
And as a last, last note: Don’t forget to smile, laugh, and have fun along the way … otherwise what is it all for?
Was there something that stood out to you about writing middle grade? What about writing from a background that wasn’t your own–a young boy from Senegal?
I really had to research it all. When I began writing this book, I was new to the genre so I had to really figure out what was at the heart of a middle grade novel. Then I had to find and listen to Mor’s voice, and his hopes and dreams. I also had to learn about Senegal, and the values and mindsets of many of her people.
I pretty much stumbled into this project not knowing ANYTHING at all.
Everything was new—writing in the voice of a boy—a Senegalese boy. Writing about a village, a Senegalese village. Writing about an experience so different from my own where assumptions, and preconceived ideas swirled in the air and needed to be tamed. I knew the harm in them ruling the story and tried my best to write from a place of understanding by doing research and asking questions of those who live this experience and by people who have come to call Senegal home. I truly wanted to create characters (and hope that I have) that young readers can identify with, and that no matter how far apart their lives might be from my characters that they might be able to see a piece of themselves in my work. My hope is that I have captured even a fraction of the heart, hospitality, and beauty that is so much a part of Senegal.
Thank you, Leah, for sharing such valuable insights.
Thanks for the interview, Johnell, I enjoyed thinking about your questions. Happy writing & reading everyone!
I met Jami through our critique group and enjoy reading her manuscripts. She creates warm and comforting characters that have a timeless feel, and she also illustrates them. Jami started her artistic career in digital animation before moving to 3D and VFX work, as you will see, and entered the kidlit world with her debut picture book Mae and Moonpublished through Ripple Grove Press. Her follow up book Seb and the Sun, also through Ripple Grove, is due in 2018.
Thank you, Jami for sharing your story.
Jami, you have a cool day job as a visual effects artist and you’ve worked on some pretty big movies: Batman v. Superman, Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Pan, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Can you be more specific on what you do?
When a film is shot these days, a lot, sometimes even the majority, of shots are done in a studio in front of a giant green screen. I work with a team that fills in that space with digital environments, creatures, vehicles, and props, all of which are created solely in the computer. I do a lot of different tasks, but my main focus recently has been on texture painting and lighting scenes.
Which movie has been your favorite to work on? Do you have a favorite sequence or asset? Continue reading →