Monday, October 26, 2009

A writing quote

"The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat's mat is a story."
--John le Carre

Friday, October 23, 2009

Showing and telling

One of the time-worn maxims of writing is "show don't tell." Novice writers mumble it in their sleep, and experienced writers stand in front of novice writers and repeat it. Sort of an "I had to learn it, now you have to learn it."

As a picture book writer and as an artist, "Show don't tell" is been a maxim that I have to view differently. It's my job to tell the story but in telling it, I get to use pictures (show) AND words (tell). Do you suppose it's a coincidence that show-and-tell vanishes from the classroom about the same grade as picture books? Wordless picture books are phenomenal in their own right but admit it, they don't function to improve reading skills and there are some constraints on the types of information they can convey. At the same time, words only don't always spark the fascination of the reluctant reader. Or even an avid reader, sometimes - even in adult markets, why do you think that so much effort goes into producing that eye-catching cover?

That being said, it's long been my theory that in a picture book, good illustrations will carry a weak story but weak illustrations will sink even some of the most magical text. I have some wonderful stories by various talented and favorite writers on my shelf but quite frankly, don't read some of them very often because the illustrations are not appealing to me at all. It doesn't have to do with style or color - some of them just don't add to the story.

And that, I think, is the key.

In picture books, both the art and the text tell a story. In the best picture books, each carries a separate thread of the story but they become braided together through the tempo of the tale to create something unique and whole and completely satisfying.

As a writer, I cannot add every detail to the text. The story has to be a single "lint free" thread. But in the pictures I can create a rich world or a fanciful one that supports and adds to the intrigue or humor or suspense or silliness of the story.

As I was mulling this over once again (I offer a workshop on this so spend a fair bit of time thinking about it), I picked up The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Bookby Bill Waterson. It's a fascinating book because he shares some of his "behind the scenes" thoughts about everything from the strip composition and story lines to his struggles with licensing and syndicates. And he makes this statement:
"The best comics have funny writing and funny drawings, but sometimes the strength of one can make up for the weakness of the other."
So far I agree. And then he goes on to say this:
"Great writing will save boring artwork better than great drawings will save boring ideas ... "
Now if you've been paying attention, I just spent a couple paragraphs disagreeing with this. But he goes on:
" ... but comics are a visual medium, and a funny picture can pull more weight than most people think."
Okay, that's true. Particularly because he demonstrates it so well by having a frame just below this statement where Calvin's bubble gum imploded all over his face. He concludes:
"Whenever deadlines force me to go with a mediocre idea, I go for broke on the illustration."
And we're back to agreement. Ding, ding, ding. Round's over ...

Picture books, like comics, are largely a visual medium. I suppose it's a perk of the current publishing environment that fewer of the boring ideas (including a few of my own) are making it to market. The variety of illustration styles and mediums is also picking up and giving greater variety to the look and feel of the stories.

But I still say go for broke on both.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Seeing a story

"Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any."
--Orson Scott Card

Monday, October 12, 2009


Some people (writers, artists, salesmen, whatever) are very good at finding reasons not to (write, paint, make contacts, whatever). And I confess I am frequently one of them. Life steps in and I forget to put things in their proper order. Or I do put them in the right order but that means writing falls down the list for the moment. I've heard this called "the tyranny of the urgent" and I dare say it catches all of us at some point.

Randy Ingermanson - "deranged physicist and award winning author" - wrote once of an arrangement he made with a group of friends that helped him stay focused on his priorities. The basic gist of it was that if he didn't meet a deadline they'd agreed on together, there was a penalty to him. And as he pointed out, it had to be something he couldn't afford to give them.

I told a friend about this last summer and, half joking, said "We should do that. But let's not make it about money - I don't have any of that. How about one of your paintings?" Now, I must say, I didn't think she had agreed to the plan. We were interrupted at that point and went on with our day. But a couple weeks later I was emailing her and closed with "So how's your writing? Am I any closer to owning one of your paintings?" (Total joke this time.) And we hadn't been in touch since then.

Until yesterday when the phone rang.

My wonderful and talented friend called to tell me that she had met the deadline for the particular piece of writing she was working on. She even had the FedEx receipt time-stamped for 3:59 pm (4 pm was the latest she could turn it in). I congratulated her - it was quite a feat and I was very excited for her. But my jaw hit the floor when she told me how instrumental I had been in helping that happen.


She had taken our "deal" very much to heart and had even shed a few tears at one point because she didn't think she'd make it and wasn't willing to part with painting she knew I would ask for. She wrote the final chapters from a hospital bedside in the wee hours of the morning but she GOT IT DONE.


What will it take to get you motivated? I'm not even sure I can always answer that question myself. But let me close with a thought from Hope Clark's Funds for Writers newsletter this week:

"I don't care if you want to be a writer or a plumber, a doctor or a teacher. You need to establish your path and lay out benchmarks to reach those personal goals. The television, the movie and the dust mop can go to hell.

The only time you have is now."

What will it take?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The pen is mighter

While getting my breakfast together this morning, I realized something. Just as important as my cereal and fruit is my pen.

Why? Well, because it tastes good dipped in milk.

Okay, not really. But I like to do the crossword puzzle every morning to get my day started. It's roughly the equivalent of that first stretch of the morning. It gets the juices flowing and shakes loose the stiff spots. Trying to make the connections the puzzle maker assumes I'll be able to loosens up the mental pathways as sometimes the clues have the expected answers and sometimes you have to think in a totally different direction. Usually the puzzle has an overall theme and the major clues will all link back to that one premise. It's almost like bullet point plotting.

What do you do to get your mental processes shaken into working order? It might be worth remembering that sometimes, the pen is mightier than the spoon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A triptych

I spent the weekend playing in my paint and ended up painting a triptych. (Do you know I have to look up the correct spelling for that almost every time I use it? And if you google it, you get lots of hits from people that decided not to look it up.)

Figured out a simple green "recipe" that I really like, and experimented with some textures and shapes at the same time. But even more exciting for me is a fourth painting that's not turning out at all like I expected. Just like a story can take you to unexpected places, the painting has as well.

Abstract art is always fascinating because though it can speak volumes, it always seems to speak a different language to different people. Our connections to colors, to emotions, to shapes all contribute to the "appeal" of an abstract piece. It reminds me of a passage I recently read:
... The third picture was my picture. There wasn't really much to it, if you know what I mean. It was -- how can I describe it? It was kind of simple. A lot of space in it and a few great widening circles all round each other, if you can put it that way. All in different colors -- odd colors that you wouldn't expect. And here and there, there were sketchy bits of color that didn't seem to mean anything. Only somehow they did mean something! ... All I can say is that one wanted terribly to go on looking at it. (from Endless Night by Agatha Christie)