Monday, May 25, 2009

SIFTING THE SOIL


The last two weeks have been phenomenally busy. May is busy anyway with a birthday, an anniversary, and Mother's Day, but I had to laugh last week (because it's so much better than crying) when every client I'm working with decided to move forward with their projects simultaneously and Faery Medicine retail orders began rolling in. The shifts were long and I was often seen sneaking off to work on my latest picture book edits.
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Yuyi suggested scheduling a phone call for the last batch of edits. There was a lot to go over. I had only planned on illustrating for this program, but Yuyi encouraged me to write as well and I'm glad she did. She is so knowledgeable. Not only can she write and illustrate a picture book, but she can pinpoint very well what is and isn't working in someone else's work. That's not easy. She often asked me questions to get the point across. Why is this part your main character's responsibility? Did this event happen because of something your character did? This put a spotlight on the loose ends in my story.

Writing a picture book has special challenges. At 500-1000 words, you can't deviate from the main idea if you want to have a cohesive storyline. No superfluous details. It is necessary to be thrifty with words without being stiff or simplifying so much that it's insulting. Believe me, kids know when they are being spoken down to. My daughter shuts a book with a snap when this happens, proclaiming, "This writer thinks I'm dumb!"

I digress. I did in my picture book as well. The area of growth for my main character was OK, but I had way too many other ideas working in the background. Each one of those ideas could become a story on its own. It was also clear that I needed to dwell on the conflict a bit more to rev up the tension.

It was a great editing session and my head was swimming when it was over. I will admit that I was overwhelmed and had doubts about my ability to do this. I'm committed 1000% to this program, so what else could I do? I started writing and cutting things out and hitting a lot of dead ends.

My daughter helped keep my sanity in check, pointing out that it looked like a good time to plant the vegetable garden. (Actually, she asked the question, "When are we going to plant the garden?" over and over and over. Same thing.) She was right.

The garden was a big job too. I wanted to do it right for an optimal yield of vegetables, so we set out to sift all of the soil in our 5 foot by 8 foot raised bed. We sifted and sifted, getting rid of the big clunky parts and making sure the worms stayed in with the fine fluffy stuff. That's when it dawned on me that gardening is a lot like writing a picture book. I felt renewed thinking of and feeling the process in this different way. Keep all the good stuff that makes the story flourish - especially the worms - and toss the rest. It was then that my picture book characters began to behave differently as I watched the interaction between my daughter and myself in this long and challenging project we were sharing in the garden.

Yesterday I sent my latest revisions to Yuyi. My hope is not for a perfect edit, but that all the elements will be in place to begin the next phase of the project. I didn't have the luxury of time to storyboard this version - too much overlap between clients and the Mentor Program at this point. Maybe I'll be able to do it while I'm waiting for feedback.

This post is about the length of my picture book so far. One of my goals was to keep it under 700 words so I had leeway in editing. Stay tuned for the next stage of my Journey!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

ALL I NEED IS A GOOD OBSTACLE & MORE PAINT


This is a new thumbnail storyboard for the latest version of my folktale. (If you don't know what thumbnails are check out the May 3rd post.) I expect to do another set of thumbnails when I get feedback from Yuyi. I really don't need to keep doing thumbnails until all the text revisions are finished, but I continue to redo them because it's good practice and reminds me that the lines I make on the paper are not precious. There are many different directions to go in. It's good to keep exploring.

Happy Mother's Day!
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Last week I got Yuyi's feedback on my folktale revisions. Some of the elements I needed were in place, but overall the story needed a more obvious obstacle for my main character to grow from. I guess I had a little conflict avoidance going on. Hopefully I included all the elements in the revisions I sent back.

While waiting for feedback, I've been testing new art materials and making sure I have everything else I need to begin the illustrations. I generally do 4-6 illustrations for Faery Medicine and whatever others clients need every year. Doing a picture book is roughly the equivalent of doing 32 Faery Medicine illustrations, so I need a lot more of everything to get the job done.

I got up before the rest of my family this morning to test out paint. My illustrations are done in multimedia layers. I start on Strathmore 500 Series Bristol by airbrushing general areas of color. Next I stipple with a .00025 mechanical pen to create the darkest areas in my illustration. Last, I finish detail with colored pencil. My aim this morning was to make sure that I had all the airbrush colors I need and to test out new paint that can speed up my process by yielding better color saturation.

My favorite paint to use in my airbrush is Golden Opaque Airbrush Colors because I don't need to use much to produce great color. If I apply too much paint, I can't work on top as easily with colored pencil, so this is important. Yuyi mentioned liking Golden Fluid Acrylics and I found that they yield nice results when I dilute them for my airbrush .

I did a lot of tests using different combinations of materials on various colors and thicknesses of paint. Afterward I placed a nice order to round out my airbrush colors, added airbrush medium and a new type of colored pencil, got bigger bristol board and masonite boards so I can easily begin several illustrations at a time.

I'm back to waiting, but I have plenty to do! I'm sure I will be posting another set of thumbnails soon. Stayed tuned!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

WEEK ONE OF THE SCBWI MENTOR PROGRAM

While I was getting ready for the beginning of the Mentor Program, I was very excited and quite nervous too. I could have done without the unexpected visit to the vet for a wounded cat and the car trouble the day before I left, but it all worked out. The cat only needed a "lampshade collar" instead of surgery and the car...fixed itself. Go figure. I guess it kept my brain occupied. Since my return I have been processing everything I learned at the beginning of the 2009 Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. (Beetle illustration copyright by Kristen Schwartz)
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I don't know if it was the genius and authenticity of the faculty, the timing, or a little bit of everything that made this the best SCBWI event I have been to over the years. (Of course, Suzanne Morgan Williams and Ellen Hopkins did a brilliant job organizing it!) Overall the tone was hopeful and the information accessible with each presenter giving lots of examples for better comprehension.

I have read and read about illustrating picture books and gone to conference workshops, but there is nothing like being in a small group with the luxury of asking lots of questions. I was able to get answers to questions that had been worrying or hindering me in some way. Some questions seemed silly to ask, but from my roots illustrating botanicals, notecards, and logos, children's publishing is a foreign land with lots of mysteries. Each question was treated respectfully and seriously. (Not to say there wasn't plenty of humor.)

Yuyi Morales walked us through her picture book process from beginning to end and Laurent Linn, Art Director at Simon and Schuster, took us through his process of art directing a picture book. Laurent Linn said that children's publishing is an industry that truly cares about children. I would take it further and say that children's publishing also gives generously to the people that aspire to work in the field. No wonder it feels like home.

It's a humbling experience to start over as an illustrator in a new genre, but with Yuyi Morales mentoring me, it feels obtainable. In our first meeting I shared the "thumbnail storyboard" of my folktale. If you are unfamiliar with thumbnails or storyboards in this context, they are a very very rough and small map of the layout of a picture book. I wasn't completely happy with my first layout. I guess you might say it wasn't consistently magical. It became clear after talking with Yuyi that I needed to think from a different point of view to stir up the visual magic. That night I woke up and realized that I was in the middle of rewriting my folktale. I continued on - awake this time - taking out the elements I didn't like and emphasizing the ones that I did. In the end I felt more connected with the story.

Laurent Linn gave a presentation on the difference between picture book illustrations and non-picture book illustrations. He presented examples of both - comparing and contrasting - emphasizing the fact that picture book images are not static. They make an emotional connection with the viewer and tell a story. They are also not portraits. This presentations was pivotal for me. My illustrations for Faery Medicine are character studies for the stories that accompany them and are not necessarily for the children's book industry. They are definitely more in line with portraits. As I pondered more of my work, I had to laugh when I remembered that I used to call my botanical illustrations "botanical portraits". What Laurent said clicked. I get it. It's the big simple secret that was right in front of my nose...the one in the portrait.

I could go on and on listing every pivotal moment. The truth is, every moment was pivotal. Even listening to writer Jane Yolen affected my illustration process. I looked forward to hearing her speak because I like her work, but I was surprised at the outcome. It was truly an amazing conference.

Since I've been back, I sent Yuyi the rewrite on my folktale and I'm waiting for feedback before I do another thumbnail version of the illustrations. Well, actually I already did another one. I was too excited not to, but I expect to do another one after she reads my rewrite as she will probably have suggestions for revisions and pacing on the story. It's all good practice. So, I leave you with my most recent storyboard inspired by a Vietnamese folktale. Stay tuned for more!



(Horizontal lines on the page represent text placement. The vertical line down the middle of the illustrations represents the gutter or space between pages.)