Here's the latest edition of ‘The Art of the Story’ Newsletter from Writing for Children, by Peter Taylor
I hope you’ll enjoy it.
The aim is always to include
… something you’ll find useful
… something you’ll find interesting
The topics today are:
•How to Create a ‘Winner’ from the Start
•My Favourite Illustrators
•Have Fun ‘Printing’
•This Writing Business - Some notes from the SCBWI Conference
I’ll appreciate any feedback you can give, questions you’d like me to answer (or find answers to), and suggestions for future editions …
57 Remick Street
Queensland 4053 Australia
How to Create a Winner from the Start - The X Factor
It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a school essay, a blockbuster trilogy or a script for a movie, it’s nice to know that you have a ‘winner’ right from the time you write the first sentence.
OK, there are lots of things you need to do before you really have a masterpiece, but the words flow so much easier when you know before you start that the structure of your story is sound. It has the X Factor.
For anything longer than a picture-book, just think of all the movies and TV dramas you’ve watched. I’m sure you can name some that were wonderful. And then there were those that you told your friends not to bother watching because they were neither gripping nor satisfying. And there’ll probably be a heap more you’ve forgotten about long ago, again because they didn’t have the X Factor. The right structure.
What structure did the best ones all have?
Imagine you are on a bus. A man’s been sitting next to you for the last half an hour, but now he’s standing up to leave.
There’s a bit more room now, so you open your briefcase and he sees the manuscript you’ve just completed.
“I’m a Hollywood producer, and I’m looking for something that will make a box-office success,” he says. “I’ve got to get out of this bus in 5 seconds time, but tell me, what’s your story about?”
What would you say?
What do you think he would be hoping to hear? What would he look for in the structure of your story to suggest it would be memorable for the right reasons?
In the film industry, this short description of the whole essence of a story, the reply you might give, is called the ‘log-line’, and it doesn’t only work for films, it works for every kind of story.
The thing is, the log-line is not something you write after completing the story. It’s what you write first.
It’s what the whole story is built around, and, importantly, is only one sentence. It’s not only what agents, editors and producers use to decide if they are going to read further, it’s also for you.
If you have a good log-line, with the X Factor, you’ll have the perfect structure for your story. Before you start.
So, what are the ‘must haves’?
An ‘objective’ story and a ‘subjective’ story.
The objective story takes you to an endpoint – ‘Will the hero catch the jewel thief?’ ‘Will the spaceship return safely to earth?’
If the story is just one long car chase, it’s forgettable. The hero has to overcome a weakness. A flaw in their own makeup.
In ‘Rocky’, he has to overcome his feelings of being a ‘loser’ before he can fight successfully. It’s probably this inner battle that is fought with the aid of an ally, this subjective extra story, that people care most about, because only then can he realistically have a chance to successfully realise the life-changing experience of becoming world champion by doing battle in the ring.
The life changing event, the challenge or opportunity forces the hero to make painful choices to overcome the flaw or weakness.
Battles don’t have to be physical. They can be fighting ill health or people’s attitudes and beliefs, or other situations.
Audience members may care more about Rocky successfully raising his self-esteem to compete than the result of the fight, but a purely personal journey – a subjective story by itself - is not enough. You have to have the battle against the opponent and the objective story of the physical fight.
If, a story was only someone deciding that they need to leave their family to follow their dreams and become a successful opera singer, you’d probably end up thinking ‘So what?’ If it were to be made into a film, there would be little to keep you watching.
Your best chance of success comes from having:
1. A hero. A central character. Someone we can connect with and care about.
2. The hero has vulnerability. They have flaws or a weakness of some kind.
3. An opponent.
4. A life changing event
5. An ally
6. A battle
Of course there are successful films and special books that don’t follow this formula – but most people find it provides a good framework, even if they make some considered changes.
My Favourite Illustrators
As a child sitting on my grandparents’ knees, I had the most amazing books read and shown to me – but they weren’t the kind you’d expect. As chicken farmers, Grandma and Grandpa Taylor had hoarded all the magazines on fancy breeds that they had ever bought since 1914 – and the colours of the early plates sang from the pages like those in medieval manuscripts, and I was mesmerised by them. I loved them much more than ‘Wig Wag Woo the Kangaroo’. The other books they read to me, or showed me, were Punch Almanacs from the 1830’s and books of engravings by George Cruickshank – illustrator of Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ amongst hundreds of other works – and together we unrolled original 18th century engravings and etchings by Thomas Rowlandson and William Blake. As you can imagine, these are some of my most prized treasures.
Though Rowlandson, Blake and, earlier, William Hogarth, are not considered illustrators of works for children, I believe that these three artists in particular laid the foundations for the illustrations we see in children’s books today.
William Hogarth was one of the first master artists to tell lengthy and complex stories with pictures. One very famous series is called Marriage A-la Mode. The six paintings, which are in the National Gallery in London, were painted in about 1743, and copies were also made and sold as engravings (as ‘mirror’ images of the paintings – reversed left to right). As suggested, it would take a lot of words to tell the whole story, but none are needed. If we look closely, it’s all there - the main story, the reasons behind various activities, the sub-plots, and there are little added extras for emphasis. But in actual fact, each picture tells a story in itself.
To give you an example, you might like to look at the first one:
Marrige a la Mode 1
The story in this one takes place in a big ‘stately home’. A father, the owner and an Earl, is doing a deal to marry his son to the daughter of a rich merchant to gain a lot of money, a ‘dowry’, which was paid by brides’ parents in days gone by. If you look through the window you can see a new building being constructed, so we can see that paying for this is one of the reasons he wants as much cash as he can get. He must also have spent a lot on ‘good living’, because he has gout in his foot. One shoe is off and he has a crutch by his side.
To get a good deal from the merchant (who’s a bit mean and dressed very plainly), the Earl is showing off his family tree to impress.
Neither the son nor the daughter is interested in the other. The son’s looking at himself in a mirror and has his back to the girl, and she is happy being chatted up by the lawyer.
In the corner are two dogs chained together, which they probably don’t enjoy – just as the young people are going to be married, though that’s not what they really want.
On the walls are two paintings that face each other – a smiling man on one wall looks towards ‘Medusa’ on the other one. Medusa is a symbol of honour, and nothing honourable at all is taking place in the story – just the opposite in fact.
I’ll tell you why I think Blake and Rowlandson were important in the next edition of ‘The Art of the Story’.
Have Fun ‘Printing’
Why not use fingerprints to make characters or build up pictures?
With a fine pen, it’s easy to add eyes and details to prints to make them into animals and birds. Larger pictures can be built up from prints in many tones.
It’s a good idea to sketch the picture lightly in pencil and divide it into about four tones, test your prints on scrap paper, then add them into the different areas as the ink gets paler. Small details can be added with a pen or brush.
This can be fun for children or professionals!
I’ve just added a new page of ideas and examples on my website in the ‘Illustration’ section:
OK, many of you have heard this before, but how many people actually do it?
Get someone else to read your work out loud to you. If that person stumbles, you need to re-write it.
In February I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Sydney Conference of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).
Wow – what a week-end!
Here are some notes I made and tips I learned:
The most important thing is research the kinds of books that each publisher produces, through websites and catalogues, before you submit your work to them.
If writing / illustrating alphabet books, they must have a theme - like Australian wildlife, or skulls, or aeroplanes.
Susan Sherman, Art Director of Charlesbridge books - a smallish US publisher that has a staff of 9 - said that for children's books, their main market is libraries. The expected shelf life of a book in a store is 1 - 2 years. They receive an average of 200 unsolicited mss per month, plus 100 solicited / from agents per month, plus 10 artists' portfolios per day. Susan said she often forgets names of artists, but remembers art. She has a pin-board with art samples on it. Send postcards of your work once every 6 months with your website details on the back - if she likes the picture she will visit the site ... and the card will go on the board. Portfolios need only have about 3 works in colour. Black and white is fine! She's looking to see if you can draw and if you are an ideas person likely to be able to extend the text. Create expressions with the eyes. Re-illustrating a book is a good exercise to include in a portfolio. She recommended taking a photocopy of your drawing and then using liquid paper to remove as many lines as possible but still retain the expression - study Shepherd's drawings for A.A. Milne and others. When working on a text and deciding on art, she will gather portfolio files and ask what each artist could bring to the project. Artists are expected to have brains. After an artist has read the story she expects them to create what no one else could have dreamed of. An artist's job is to be able to effectively consider 'How many ways can you interpret these words?’ Selection of type face is an early decision. Alex Brodovitch is the guru. The artist will submit thumbnails and email very rough sketches for layout, leaving space for text. Revisions will be made using the 'please consider' promptings from the art director, then more detailed drawings, revision, then final artwork.
All publishing people agreed they couldn't say exactly what they want because, for both artists and authors, for they want books where there's 'nothing else like it'.
Penguin Aus also receives about 3000 mss per year in the slush pile. Australian Editors from Penguin, Random House and Harper Collins all agreed that they are absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of mss that arrive at their office, and Random House and Harper Collins now have a policy of no unsolicited mss, but actually everything that arrives is read. Harper Collins already have all their books programmed for printing and release for the next 3 years - and are now working on titles for 2010. They will publish one picturebook per year (I think that means by a new author).They all recognised that just because a ms came from an agent, that did not make it a better book. All editors said the worst part of their life is sending rejections, and they hate it.
The industry is so tight now that mistakes and poor sellers have to be avoided at all costs. This means that smaller numbers of titles will be published, but those that are have had so much work done on them that they are pretty well guaranteed to be winners.
The main reason why so few picturebooks are published in Australia is bookstore design. Picturebooks need to be displayed face out. But think how many books 'spine out' could be fitted in the same space! There's far more profit in spine out displays. Stores make least profit from their pb shelves.
What we really understood by the end was the amount of time that's taken in producing the finished article, the number of people and committee meetings that occur, the decisions that have to be made etc.. Though full colour is expensive, the cost is really in the number of 'people hours' rather than the printing. In 3 months prior to a rejection, a ms could have been read from 3 to 9 people, compared and re-read, considered by a couple of group acquisition meetings, and although editors accepted simultaneous submissions and author imposed deadlines that after a particular length of time it will be submitted to someone else, they really hated it when so many publishing people had invested so much time in the story and then found that it had been accepted by someone else and they had not been informed. I got the impression they really don't like simultaneous submissions, but know they have to live with them. A ms has to make an editor passionate and believe in it and its success so strongly that they are willing to fight to exhaustion for it and justify it above all mss championed by other editors in the publisher's team.
Your competition is everyone else that's out there.
It is easier for a publisher to take on and sell books by an unknown author if they are paired with a well known illustrator whose books are acclaimed, and vice versa. It was suggested that authors who also illustrate ask that they may have their illustrations considered, but say they are prepared for someone else to do the artwork if the publishers would prefer ... or if they are particularly fond of a story and their own illustrations, put it in the bottom drawer and bring it out after they have had a few books published and illustrated by others. A large number of books get rejected because they have something similar already accepted. To combat effects of rejection, have a numbered list of publishers that you will send to, so that as soon as you get a reply, go on to the next on the list
When the first person at Penguin looks at the cover letter, the ms is colour tagged - High Priority for agented or previously published author, Medium Priority for some sort of writing credit, Low Priority for the grandchildren like it Don't be afraid of adding a little humour in the cover letter. The editor would like to develop a long term and amenable relationship with the author.Editors don't mind having their memory jogged when you haven't heard for a lengthy period (more than 4 months). Mss do get lost, left at the side of the swimming pool etc.
Picturebooks from most publishers take 2 - 3 years from acceptance to appearing on shelves.Release of books has to fit into small windows of time linked to trade fairs and Christmas.
'Booksurge' gives sales figures for the best selling books, and down to the worst. If your book is a flop, all other publishers can see the figures, how few were sold, and you are less likely to get another contract.
To make a book a success, consider making the first word of the title the topic that the book is about, so that it ranks highly in database searches. Trends - There is a publishing shift away from book stores to Target and large 'supermarkets'. There are likely to be more audio-visual / multi sensory products created and marketed. Note that in the US, picture books are usually 32, 40 or 48 pages (not 24, as in Aus) and 'always' hard-back. Plan accordingly. Importance of cover design was emphasized. Kids know what looks good to them - it's often different to what adults think is good. Importance of blurb too.
For trade fairs such as Bologna, editors spend months prior researching what books other publishers are buying and schedule 1/2 hour meetings when books relevant to their taste will be shown. Most titles do not have rights sold at these fairs, but during subsequent months of follow up marketing. There's a chance that a visit from an author might be nice - but I got the impression that more likely you'll be in the way. Negotiations are very highly structured. The selling of foreign rights is a very important source of revenue for publishers (and authors). (I got the impression that this is one reason why publishers are not keen on rhyme - it rarely translates into rhyme in other languages and so limits who they can sell the rights to.) US reading level per age is lower than Aus.
The importance of authors maintaining the buzz for their books was emphasized. Presentation skills = sales! Work with the publisher. The number of bookmarks / cards / posters that will be supplied can/should be written into the contract.
Consider working with government trade agencies (Austrade in Australia) to investigate the Korean / Asian market - but not all publishers / printers there are honest, and books have been copied and sold 'vewy cheap pwice' on the black market.
Hazel Edwards emphasized the need to be able to speak about your book, use humorous anecdotes, but keep mentioning titles of your books and keep mentioning your website.
If your book goes out of print, make sure you get the film from the publisher. 'Film' is what is used in printing the final product. It is very valuable, for it's expensive to produce. Obviously, if your book is no longer going to be in print with one publisher and the rights revert to you, they will have no further use for the film. But it could be useful to you. Though imprint pages may need to be changed, if you can supply it, another company can reprint the book a lot cheaper. It could make the difference between selling the book and not selling it to another publisher. It is particularly important for picturebooks, as the colour and the text are done on separate film. This means that it is easy to produce new text in a foreign language and have it fit in the spaces previously provided.
More in the next edition…
That’s it for this one.
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