The old blog has been a bit quieter than usual. That’s because I was gone almost the whole month of September on a road trip.
With a dog, two kids, two adults, and one not-so-large camper.
We passed through numerous national parks, stopped in mega metroplises to visit friends and eat pastries, and even made it all the way out to the Northwest most point of the continental US. (From central Illinois. It was a HAUL.)
Since I mostly talk about my writing here, let me tell you about the writing I did on this trip.
Zero. Zilch. Nada. Not one word.
But it ended up being wonderful for my writing.
Before the trip, I had been revising several picture books as part of my mentorship. I was also working on a new middle grade novel. And I felt stuck on all of them.
When I say “stuck,” I don’t mean that I was waiting for the light of inspiration to fall on me complete with celestial choir. Because that doesn’t exist.
Instead, I take the approach that Maya Angelou does:
“When I’m writing, I write. Then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and say ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'” – Maya Angelou
Doing the work of writing brings inspiration, not the other way around. And nearly always, the answer to my writing problem is to sit down and do the work.
Occasionally there are other factors at play, too.
ME: Let’s write!
ME: How about coffee?
BRAIN: Took you long enough. #amwriting#maybe#coffee
But sometimes even when I do the work, even when I’m appropriately caffeinated, things just don’t… work. Bad writing days are par for the course, but when I’m doing my best to emulate Maya Angelou and all I can muster up is Charles Darwin on a bad day? That’s not good.
“I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders. ” – Charles Darwin on a very bad, no good, horrible day
And this is where I was before our road trip. I was doing the work but not getting much of anywhere.
Ironically, this happened partly because I have been growing a lot as a writer. My own efforts and the mentorship I’ve been working on this summer have meant growing and stretching. I’m more aware than ever of the flaws in my writing, but I haven’t quite improved my skills enough to fix those problems.
I feel like this is may be a universal truth: the better you get at writing, the harder it is. Or maybe it’s just me.
So I found myself with a pile of manuscripts that were both some of the best things I had ever written and also with the realization that they were not quite good enough. But I didn’t know how to fix them. Which had me feeling very poorly and stupid indeed.
And then I took a break. A looooooong break.
I intended to write along the way. I love writing and usually can’t stay away for long, even on vacation. But it was a very packed trip (see previous regarding 6000k miles in under a month with CHILDREN). And also, my writing self was still feeling poorly and stupid. So instead I giggled like a maniac at my landlocked children experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
(In the interest of fairness, they had been dodging the surf for a few minutes before this much large wave rolled in.
When I got back, I was nervous. A month is a long time away and things hadn’t exactly been going great. But I channeled Maya Angelou and sat down to work.
And… it worked!
I unblocked a picture book revision, added a few thousand words to my middle grade work in progress, and finished a blog post that has been on my list for awhile.
A month of relaxing, putting it out of my head, listening to good books and podcasts, seeing and doing enough things to make my introverted self tired for the next year – it helped. A lot.
I routinely do walk away from manuscripts to get some distance. A little distance often helps you find solutions. And I had tried that. But I don’t usually stop writing – I just switch to a different writing project. That works well when ONE manuscript is misbehaving, but not for ALL of them. For that I needed a total break.
Which brings me to a second possible universal truth about writing: Sometimes you have to step away from the page and live for a while before you are ready to write. Hopefully, it doesn’t always involve as much driving.
I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a long time to share how I use bullet journaling to help me write my middle grade novels. I’m in the middle of writing a new novel right now, so it’s the perfect time for me share.
It’s also nearly NaNoWriMo time! If you’re not familiar with National Novel Writing month, you should go check it out. People all over the globe are busily preparing to write a novel in the month of November.
This post is for anyone who is writing a novel. Whether you are:
doing NaNoWriMo and writing a novel in a month
taking your time the rest of the year (or years)
plotting it all out beforehand
or pantsing your way through to THE END,
every novelist will benefit from having a bullet journal.
A novel bullet journal is different from a regular bullet journal
Everything I shared before was from my planning bullet journal. My 2019 planning bujo is a silver Rhodia goalbook. I use it for bringing together all the aspects of my writing career: planning for multiple manuscripts, critique groups, blogging, marketing, lists of books to read and review, etc.
I’ve found that I drop fewer balls when all the planning information is in one place, so all the planning and prioritizing go into my regular bullet journal.
A novel Bullet journal has a different purpose: to hold all the details about your novel. It has an index and a lot of collections. It doesn’t have any planning (so no logs). It’s focused so that you can focus on your novel. The bujo for my current work in progress is a teal Scribbles That Matter notebook.
Yes, I use a separate notebook.
Ok, yes, it is possible to put all the novel information into your regular bullet journal in between your ideas for blog posts and daily planning. But that can make it hard to find information – especially when it spills over into a new notebook.
I start a new planning bullet journal every year. If I put my novel information into my regular journal, all that information would be spread across two or three (or more) years of bullet journals.
Instead, for each novel, I buy a separate journal. All the information for that novel goes into that journal. If I want to look up a fact from my first novel, it will definitely be in the sky-blue notebook. If I need to check a detail for the current novel, it’s in the grape purple notebook.
So for me, I keep a planning bullet journal each year plus a separate bullet journal for each novel.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider this: we writers love to buy notebooks and I just gave you an excuse!
Hopefully, I have now sold you on having a bullet journal to help you write a novel. So let’s take a look at some of the things that can go into your novel bullet journal
Collections for inspiration and planning
A new novel usually starts here: with inspiration and early planning.
Inspiration or mood board
A lot of writers find it helpful to create a mood board or inspiration board for their writing. If you put those things in your bullet journal, you have a mood board that can travel to the coffee shop with you.
pictures that inspire you
Protip: adding large things in your journal is easy with a piece of washi tape. Plus, now you have a reason to buy pretty washi tape. The video below shows how I added some pictures and diagrams to my bullet journal for easy reference.
Brainstorming is a great way to get the creative juices rolling. I end up doing quick brainstorms throughout my writing process. I usually set aside a collection just for brainstorming. Whenever I need to think up, say, a funny name for a character’s pet chicken, I’ll flip to the brainstorming collection and make a list. When the pages fill up with these lists, I start another.
clues (for mysteries)
magical items (for fantasy)
literally whatever you need
Another form of brainstorming – One exercise I did with my current novel was to create a mindmap. I wrote out all the character names and settings in circles, then drew lines to show the relationships between them. It was really helpful so I could see which characters and subplots clustered together neatly and which… did not. That made it easy to target subplots to cut from an already over-stuffed plot.
This is where you get to the core of your novel: character, plot, setting, etc. If you’re a plotter, you’ll probably be developing all of this before your first draft. For us pantsers, you’ll be tracking this information as you write or after the first draft.
There are a million names for this idea – character sheet, character bible, character interview, … Whatever you call it, it’s a place to write down all the pertinent information about your character. Creating your character sheet is a great way to get to know your character.
Appearance (keep it brief: are they an elephant or a child or a pterodactyl with eczema?)
Internal problem/arc* (what is driving them?)
External problem/arc* (what is the outwardly visible problem in their lives?)
Sometimes these details change and I always learn a lot about my characters while writing. So I end up rewriting my character sheets with the new information:
Speech or body language tics
Likes and dislikes
People in their lives – friends, family, pets, …
All the idiosyncratic details that help them feel real.
*If you’re not sure what I mean by internal and external problems and arcs, I recommend reading a book on story structure like Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. You can get a taste from her TedTalk here.
Diagram of 3-act structure in a bullet journal from Page Flutter. I lean toward the pantsing side of the plotter-pantser spectrum. So I often go into a novel with just a rough overview of the plot. When I’m first thinking about the plot of a novel, I will usually freewrite long-hand to work out my ideas.
At some point in revision, I will use diagrams and charts full of plot points and all the things that plotters love.
I like to do my plotting on a whiteboard with sticky notes so I can move plot points around until I’m satisfied with them – or identify holes that need to be filled…
But when I’m done, I copy it down in my bullet journal for easy reference while writing. (Also: I have too many cats and kids for sticky notes to last through the entire drafting or revision process.)
Family tree/character mindmap
If you’ve got a big cast of characters, it can be helpful to have a visual to see how they all connect. A family tree is helpful for big families.
A mindmap that shows characters and how they’re related can also help you keep track of tangled social webs. For instance, look at the web I made for just a few of the Harry Potter characters.
This is a place to park all the information about a setting in your novel. You can snag photos from the internet. I often draw diagrams (they don’t have to be museum-worthy – just so I keep my layout of buildings and towns consistent) or I look up building diagrams online and tape in printouts. Maps may also be helpful – either hand-drawn or printed off of google maps
If your story starts in spring but 5 months go by before the end, you can’t have them picking daffodils in a spring shower in the last scene. (Unless you are on an alternate planet or reality where time and natural cycles work differently. You can make a collection for that, too.)
A timeline helps you to track the progression of time both so it’s believable and so you can nail those details that bring a novel to life: are the characters meeting while shivering under cover of night or sweating in the blazing sun of mid-afternoon summer? You can write it out by hand, but I like to type it into a spreadsheet which I print out and tape it into my bullet journal for reference.
Fantasy – world building details like cultures, languages, governance structures.
Sci-fi – technological details and world building
Mystery or thriller – Clues, villains, and red herrings.
Magical realism/fantasy – how does the magic “work”
Historical – all that research about your time/setting/characters
Humor – list of running jokes/callbacks
Tools to help you write
“Tracker” is the shorthand in the bullet journaling community for any type of collection that lets you track information over time. Consider:
word count (as you write)
chapters revised (as you revise)
number of chocolate bars eaten trying to sort out a plot hole (I don’t judge)
I like to use a simple word count tracker. Filling a page up with sparkly stickers is very satisfying.
If you’re trying to write a novel for NaNoWriMo, it can be helpful to track daily word count. Here is the official NaNoWriMo wordcount tracker for 2019.
Lists and Notes:
Simple but necessary. There’s a lot to keep track of so make a collection and give it a place to live where it can be easily found later (unlike that used napkin…)
Some collections I have used to hold notes and lists:
list of changes to make in the next draft (“Side character names are all boring – fix this.”)
questions that need answering (“Why does my character hate the villain so much? Need to work out backstory.”)
ideas for revision (“If I change the location of the earlier scene, readers will already know the location before getting to the pivotal scene later.”)
people to thank in acknowledgment – I keep this running list. It gets long very quickly.
References and writing helpers
If you find yourself looking up, say, an emotional thesaurus frequently, print it out and taping it in your bullet journal. That way it’s always handy – even when the internet goes down. (The horror…)
3 act structure diagram
hero’s journey diagram
list of words to cut from your writing
anything you find useful
Literally anything else that will fit in a notebook
A few days ago, my daughter leaned over my shoulder and asked what I was reading on my phone. It was a blog post about writing villains, so I told her it was about how to write a better story. Which led her to say:
“But you already know how to write.”
Yes and no. Yes, I already do know a lot about writing and have even gotten a few publications. No, I don’t know everything there is to know – not by a long shot. I can still learn to be a better writer.
No matter where you are on your journey, you can learn and improve. My favorite way to learn is by reading.
It’d been a couple of years since I last wrote a roundup of writing craft books – time for an update!
I’ve broken the list down into sections:
inspiration for all writers
books for fiction writers
books for nonfiction writers
books for children’s book writers
books on the business of being an author
A challenge: we learn a lot by studying our own genre – but I’ve also gained a lot by reading about writing in other genre’s. So consider branching out and reading a book that you normally wouldn’t.
Inspiration for all Writers
Big Magic: Creative Writing Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is my top picks for all writers. Writing is hard – not just because producing good work requires substantial labor, but because our own mind often works against us in the form of internal critics, writers’ block, and lack of motivation. Her perspective will have you re-think your writing in ways that bring more joy and less fear.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You Will Ever Need by Jessica Brody – The original Save the Cat book was written to help screenwriters, but many novelists found that, with a little adaptation, the method also applied very well to writing books. Now Jessica Brody has written a book just for us novelist – with examples and additional information just for novelists. (Though I think a lot can be applied to shorter forms – like picture books.) The method is heavy on plot development – even if you don’t pre-plot your books, it can be helpful for analyzing a rough draft and making changes to improve pacing and story arc. (I used it this way in revising my first novel.)
How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larson – When writing nonfiction you often send publishers a proposal rather than a completed manuscript. That can be daunting if you’ve never written a proposal before. This book has everything you need to know to write a proposal. If you have no idea what I’m even talking about, this would be a good place to start. It’s thorough but written to be an easy read and includes lots of helpful samples from real proposals.
The Weekend Book Proposal: How to Write a Winning Proposal in 48 hours and Sell Your Book by Ryan G. Van Cleave – If you want a lighter version to get you started on your book proposal, this might be the book for you. The title is misleading, though. That means 48 working hours. Maybe some people work around the clock on the weekend but I, for one, like sleep and food. Misleading title aside, it’s a helpful book and would be a good choice for someone just starting out with writing proposals.
Books for Children’s Book Writers:
Most writing craft books assume you are writing for adults. Principles of good characters, pacing, and plot hold for all books, no matter the age of your audience. But there are also differences between the kids and adult book markets and the needs of these audiences. So if you’re writing for kids, check out these books, too, in addition to the ones above.
Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul – If you write picture books, you need this book. I read the original edition a couple of years ago and learned so much from it. This past year a revised edition came out with updated examples and new information about the market. A friend invited me to an online book study group to go through the new edition. Even though I had read the previous edition, I still learned a ton. It really is that good.
Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas – This primer covers everything you need to know to get started writing nonfiction for kids. It was a great book for me when I was getting started and it’s still a great book now that I have a few manuscripts under my belt. Note: this book goes in and out of print which means the price can fluctuate a lot. I recommend keeping an eye out for used copies.
Books about the Business of Being an Author
The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman – This is the only book I’m including on the list that I have not, personally, read from cover to cover. (I’m working on it!) I’m including it based on what I have read so far, the numerous recommendations I’ve been given, and my experience of getting so much valuable information off of her blog over the years. There are lots of books that cover one aspect of the writing business (I list some below), but this is the only one I’ve seen that is comprehensive. If you want to have a career in writing – this book will tell you everything you need to know.
The Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas – After you’ve finished your manuscript masterpiece, you’ll have to write a query letter so you can begin to query agents and editors (i.e. try to convince them to take on your book). This one-page document is somehow even harder than writing the manuscript itself. This is an entire book that will help you learn how to craft a one-page document.
Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market or, if you’re writing for adults: Writers Market – Once you’ve gotten your manuscript or proposal squeaky clean and ready to send out, you’ll need to figure out how to get it into the hands of the agent or editor of your dreams. These books are designed exactly for that. They’re updated every year to keep up with changes in the market.
I’ve been sharing book reviews informally on social media for a while. I noticed that social media review get more reach than do blog posts. Reading will happen no matter where I share, but if I want to reach readers and shine a light on good books, I need to go where the people are.
After a lot of thought (and some handwringing) I have decided to shift to reviewing books on my social media accounts – primarily Instagram. My account is open, so you can view it without creating an Instagram account, though I do reshare to Twitter and Facebook as well.
I love writing conferences – I always learn a ton and come home excited to work on my manuscripts. In fact, I wrote so many notes that the fountain pen in the next photo was over half empty when I got home. To put that in perspective, that’s the ink equivalent of a couple of ballpoint pens or more. That’s a lot of writing!
But it’s also just plain fun to hang out with people who love books as much as me.
This was my first writing conference outside of Illinois, so I can now say that writers everywhere are some of the kindest, loveliest humans on the planet. I’m running on fumes today because I stayed up every night chatting with my fellow conference-goers. It was definitely worth it.
In addition to writing children’s books, I also write and edit curriculum for all ages. One thing I love is using that expertise so that my readers can enjoy my books even more.
I Pray Today is written for the littlest booklovers – babies and toddlers. But the themes and ideas are big ones. So I have pulled out those ideas and used them as the basis of lessons and activities for older children.
There are lessons and activities for preschoolers to middle schoolers. Each is tailored to the understanding and interests of a particular age, but flexible enough to be used with a variety of ages.
They’re easy to use, and bonus material and resources can be used to build on the lessons.
March is women’s history month, so this month I’m sharing women’s history books that focus on something I love: STEM. Check out these real stories of amazing women all of whom pursued their passions and became experts in science, technology, engineering, or math despite all the odds.
Science: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley
When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, doctors told her mother she would never speak or be able to fit in. They told her to send Temple away. But her mother did not give up. Neither did Temple. As she grew older, Temple found that her visual thinking and attention to detail were strengths. She revolutionized farming and found her voice as a speaker who travels the world.
Math: Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Tiemdow Phumiruk
Katherine Johnson loved to learn and loved math. But growing up in the segregated South – she had to fight to continue pursuing her passion. Her perseverance not only let her reach her dreams, but also made spaceflight possible.
This is the same Katherine Johnson who was featured in the book-turned-movie Hidden Figures, which I have recommended before. While there is a middle grade edition of Hidden Figures, I was delighted to this important story told in a picture book format for younger kids.
Technology and Engineering: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu
Long before there were computers, Ada Byron Lovelace had too much imagination and love of learning to listen when people told her a woman could not be a scientist. She meets a man named Babbage with a similarly impossible dream: a thinking machine. But how to give it commands? Ada goes to work developing a code to talk to this mechanical computer. She ends up inventing computer programming before computers even existed.
Science: Joan Proctor Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala
Joan always loved reptiles – while other girls carried around dolls, she had a pet crocodile. When all the men were called away to war, she got her chance: she got a job working with the reptiles she loved. Eventually, she became a leading expert in reptiles sharing her knowledge so the world would understand just how loveable reptiles could be.
In my last post, I explained how the editor at the publishing company works as a matchmaker to pair the right illustrator with each manuscript. Lynne picks up there to explain what the process looks like from her side of the bookmaking process.
An editor will contact an illustrator to see if they want to work on the project. If the illustrator agrees, they’ll start making the art.
Often the illustrator will discuss the artwork ahead of time with the editor or art director. Together they will develop an overall vision or discussing what to put on each page. Sometimes not.
Often the illustrators will spend time developing character sketches before making the rest of the artwork. They may make thumbnails or other rough sketches of their work. Sometimes not.
But once the illustrator develops the line art, they will usually send it off to the editor to get their feedback.
Illustrators don’t finalize the artwork (adding color etc.) until after everyone at the publishing house is satisfied with the line drawings.
Each artist has their own process. The way I create my manuscripts is not the same as another writer, though some parts of the process are similar: we all revise. (And revise. And revise. And…)
The same is true for illustrators.
While Lynne drew her illustrators by hand with physical materials (paper, pencils, paint), in this video Will is using computer software that allows him to draw on a tablet with a stylus.
Isn’t this video soothing?
Notice that although the medium is different (paper vs. computer), both Lynne and Will go through a similar process: they create a rough sketch, refine it until they’re satisfied with the line art, then begin to color it in. Whatever you call it, revision really is universal.
(I have asked people weirder questions while writing.)
In this video, she shares how she created one of her cartoon images. Like Will, Debbie is creating this piece using computer software. And you can see how she refines her initial idea – trying variations, tinkering, and making adjustments until she lands on a final version she is happy with.
But we can also revisit one of our illustrators to see what she has to say.
Here Lynne Chapman shares her story of how she became a children’s book illustrator:
These days, illustrators typically send portfolios to art directors, art agents, or show them at conferences like those hosted by the SCBWI. If you entice them with the quality of your work, they will contact you to discuss illustrating a book.
However you get your big break, the starting point is the same: work really hard by practicing your art, perfecting your craft, and learning about the business. Joining the SCBWI is a great first step as it gives you a wealth of resources.
If you missed my first post in the series, check it out below. Next time, I’ll discuss the different paths authors can take to publication in more detail. Stay tuned!
For this month’s Kidlit book roundup, I’m happy to welcome my friend, Deb Aronson. Deb was one of my first writer friends; she welcomed me into our local writer community way back when I was just beginning to learn the ropes. Somehow she stayed my friend despite seeing those early draft. *Shudder*
We’re still friends all these years later and maybe one day I’ll even let her convince me to get on her sailboat. (Maybe…)
Many classic horse stories celebrate the magical connection between humans and horses, of course. Some of my favorites include My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and War Horse. But with racehorse stories, there is an added layer of human and horse joined in an effort to realize their full potential. To me, these stories have a special energy.
Do You Love Sports Stories? Then give these books a try.
Racehorse stories are, at their heart, sports stories. Those that excel are just as Olympian in their achievements as swimmer Michael Phelps or gymnast Simone Biles. There is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. There is the love and care the horse’s human handlers feel for their special horses. They communicate deeply, even if they do it without words. Granted there are also tragic tales at the racetrack, such as when a horse breaks down from a bad step, or when a jockey falls and is permanently injured. There is risk. But for every story of risk there is also the possibility of redemption.
If you hesitate to read about racehorses because of the stories you hear about them being mistreated, I would say to you that those stories are aberrations. True horsemen and horsewomen do not do that to their charges. They care deeply about their horses, even more deeply in some cases than for their human connections. Not surprisingly, you will not read children’s books about those kinds of people.
The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him by Lawrence Scanlan
So, let me tell you about some of my favorite racehorse stories. One is The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him, by Lawrence Scanlan (Harper Collins). Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. He won the last race in the series, the Belmont, by a shattering 31 lengths and his time remains the American record for 1.5 miles on dirt more than four decades later. Scanlan does a great job showing Secretariat’s laid-back personality and his love of racing. It comes as no surprise that any true story about a horse will also tell the story of that horse’s handlers. In Scanlan’s book, we enjoy learning about Secretariat’s devoted groom, Eddie Sweat, and the special bond the two of them had.
Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody
Another inspiring story is Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody (University of Nebraska Press). There have been many books written about Seabiscuit, including the highly acclaimed adult book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand, not to mention a movie. Moody’s book is targeted for upper middle grade readers and has several pencil sketches, though no photographs. One reason Seabiscuit’s story is so grand is because it is truly one of redemption. Set in the 1930s, it is a story of how the love, expertise and careful attention of trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard created a bond so wonderful that Seabiscuit changed from an ornery, nervous, injured and slow racehorse to a gentle, calm, strong champion who beat War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown and the acknowledged champion horse of the country.
Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse by Meghan McCarthy
Picture Book Nonfiction
Although Come on Seabiscuit is for older readers, a more recent picture book by Meghan McCarthy, Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) would be a great read-aloud for younger readers. McCarthy’s illustrations are delightful and she does a great job of telling the story of Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral.
American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion by Shelley Fraser Mickle
In American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion (Aladdin), by Shelley Fraser Mickle, we learn the backstory of the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Mickle tells American Pharoah’s story in such detail you can imagine being there in the stall with the even-tempered stallion. I also came away from the story with a better understanding of many of the humans connected with American Pharoah, from famous trainer, Bob Baffert, and jockey Victor Espinoza, to owner Ahmed Zayat, who I especially came to appreciate.
Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack by Gare Joyce
And finally, I recently enjoyed a book about a less well-known racehorse, Northern Dancer. In 1964 he was, as the book says, “the biggest newsmaker in the country’s sporting scene.” Northern Dancer is another story of an unlikely hero. He was not a regal-looking racehorse, but more in the model of Seabiscuit: chunky, short and plain looking. Having been bred in Canada, U.S. racing fans tended to underestimate him. Gare Joyce, the author of Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack, describes him as “a horse with a competitive spirit and a lot of heart, so he was able to outrun a great number of better bred and more imposing horses.” Who doesn’t love an underdog story?!
Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack by Deb Aronson
Although all these books are about male horses, I wouldn’t want you to think there are not accomplished fillies in the racing world too. However, the surprising thing is how few children’s books there are about them. One of the few is Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack (Chicago Review Press), written by yours truly. Because she raced against, and beat, male horses in three major races, hers is truly a girl power story. This book is the only one of those reviewed that has full-color photographs throughout the text.
See Racehorses in action!
If you enjoy these stories I would also recommend you watch some videos of their most famous races; these thoroughbreds are running machines!
The illustrator decides what art to put on the page – along with the editor and art director.
Note that the author is not in that list of people.
Authors can give general guidelines. For instance, when I sent my editor the query for I Pray Today, I told her that the manuscript
“follows a child through his day, from waking with a “Good morning, God,” to getting tucked in at bedtime – always with a prayer on his lips:
Good morning, God. The day is new. I say my first small prayer to You.
The last part is the opening of the manuscript. I never told them what to put on the page with it, yet it turned out perfectly.
Author’s can (very very occasionally) include an art note to explain what illustration needs to go with a piece of text. This is reserved for cases where the text doesn’t make sense without the art. Giving a note helps the editor to understand the text in the same way that a reader would – with both text and art together.
For example, one part of I Pray Today includes the text:
Dad says dinner’s piping hot. I stuff in food, but – oops, forgot.
Why does she say “oops?”
What did she forget?
Once you see the artwork, it makes perfect sense:
She forgot to pray first! In my manuscript, I included an art note to explain this: [ART: Kid starts eating before prayer.]
That’s the only art note in the whole manuscript because that’s the only one that was needed. Even then, I kept it to just what was needed to understand the text. I still left most of the decisions up to the illustrator: Who is at dinner? Are they at home, a restaurant, somewhere else? How will you show that she forgot to pray?
This came up recently. An adult reader contacted me on behalf of his child wanting to know: what are they eating?
Good question! I really had no idea, since I hadn’t made that decision. So I sent it off an email to my editor who said:
Good question! And she emailed the illustrator to find out.
I had fun polling my friends on social media while I waited for the answer. Most people guessed chicken nuggets with either fries or green beans.
Well, we were a little bit right:
All in all, it was a lot of fun finding out the answer. (Also, I really want to try those pommes noisettes.)
What If the Illustrations Are Wrong?
This is the whispered question that everyone is dying to know but nervous to ask.
Aspiring authors especially seem to struggle with this. It’s scary to give up control of something you have worked so hard on.
Ready for another shocker?
It’s not just your book. It certainly feels that way – as an author, you come up with a concept, agonize over every word, and revise until your fingers fall off. But with a picture book or board book, text and illustration work together. They’re a package deal.
And also: It almost always works out wonderfully. I have worked with three different illustrators over seven books and, each time, I was blown away by their work. Every. single. time.
This spread from Goodnight Jesus is a great example. I gave the editor general guidelines for the form of this book, just like I did for I Pray Today. I told them it was a bedtime story focused on giving kisses – a child works their way toward bedtime but giving, and eventually receiving, kisses. But I didn’t specify how that should be shown. In my head, I imagined the child in their family icon corner kissing icons then moving toward bed giving out kisses as they go.
Instead, the illustrator put the child into the icons. I had imagined a static version, but he made it interactive. That makes for a more engaging illustration and book. Plus you can see both the love the child is giving AND the love the child is receiving. That’s a deep theological statement – but boiled down to a child’s level.
The two images together in ways I didn’t consider. Notice how the position of the two babies are mirror images of one another. Even Jesus’ body language mirrors Mary’s – each is cuddling a baby they love. That makes the images work together both on an aesthetic level,and a theological level.
The illustrator didn’t just show my story, he added to it in ways that deepened it. He brought a fresh perspective that allowed him to expand the story in meaningful ways. Which bring us to our next question:
Why Does it Work This Way?
Separating the text decisions from the illustration decisions isn’t a cruel thing done by evil editors. They are giving both artists – author and illustrator – the freedom to do their best work. I am not a visual artist. I don’t have the training or experience to make decisions about artwork.
No, the child in your book probably won’t look exactly like your granddaughter. The illustrations may not match what you envisioned. That doesn’t make it wrong.
If you can go in with an open mind, you’ll be able to appreciate the exceptional artwork that has been carefully crafted to enhance your story.
Secretly, I think that the editor’s and illustrator’s jobs are to make the author look good. The editor wants this book to succeed. The illustrator wants to produce excellent illustrations. All of which makes my book stronger and better than I could make it on my own.
So, no, authors don’t have illustration decisions about their books. But that’s just fine.
Next time I’ll share what the illustration process looks like for illustrators. We’ll pick up after the editor has paired them with a book text and see what it’s like from that side of the equation.