I often wonder how other author/illustrators balance out those two elements, whether words or pictures take precedent in story development.
Having just completed the finished draft of my fourth chapter book, I’m realising I have certain tendencies when I’m developing a story.
For example, starting points. More often than not, my books start off as doodles. I’ll be scribbling some creature or child or (in the case of my current project) a mini-witch on a flying pencil, and I’ll get this feeling that they’ve got more to say. Maybe it’ll be a particular expression, or the way they’re standing, or some prop they’re holding — something that allows me to detach from the character and see them as a separate person with secrets and history.
At which point, I put on my imaginary deer stalker and interrogate my character until she spills the imaginary beans.
When I’m running character design workshops with kids, I encourage them to ask their drawings one question in particular:
‘What’s your problem?!’ (preferably said out loud in an obnoxious voice for maximum chuckles).
It might sound daft, but I think it’s impossible to really engage imagination without stepping outside your creation and letting her (or him) speak, and this exercise is just one way of engaging that manner of thinking. Kids are naturally imaginative of course, but as someone who’s worked in education for a long time, I can honestly say that our tick-box culture does an excellent job of squashing these skills. And this tactic seems to help reinstate the default settings.
I’m digressing a bit.
So, I’ve interrogated my drawing and I know what her problem is. The next step is to work out how I’m going to introduce said problem and, later, solve it.
A basic plot begins to take shape.
I jot down a line or two for each chapter and try to get a feel for the overall shape of the story. At first, all I have to work with is a rough story arc, but as I map this out, questions will be springing up in my head, like ‘why is that peripheral character so grumpy?’ or ‘what secrets is so and so keeping?’. Then, as I start writing, these questions are worked into the story. So there are still surprises for me, as storyteller, which is a huge incentive to keep going.
I tend to write a few chapters without illustrating, though I’ll likely be working on further character drawings too — drawings which probably won’t make the final cut but which help bring my key players to life.
Then once I’m a few chapters in, I’ll start looking at the rhythm of the storytelling. Where are the lulls? What might be better told visually? Would an image in this or that section add or detract? And I start to weave in my illustrations.
The rest of the book comes together in a similar way: write a few chapters, illustrate, write a few chapters, illustrate, and before I know it I’m sitting in front of a (slightly too long, usually) first draft of a chapter book.
And so the edits begin…
I’m ruthless. I reread, cringe, cut, edit, repeat, until eventually I can see my worn-but-optimistic face in my perfectly polished story.
Then off it goes to my beta-readers (family, friends, and a select army of kids) while I wait for feedback. And inevitably feedback tells me it wasn’t quite as perfectly polished as I thought. Cue diving into round two of edits (minimal to zero cringing this time). Whoop! It’s now ready to be seen by my agent.
With my latest book, Chloe Seager spotted a few easy structural changes (rounds three and four of edits) which helped emphasise my protagonist’s crisis.
This editorial stage is important and having an agent whose opinions you trust is everything, because the next stage is the big one: SUBMISSION.
And it occurs to me, writing this, just how many people are involved in whipping my stories into shape. There’s Chloe, there’s my cheer-squad of family and friends, and I’m ever grateful to each of them.
But the strongest, most emotive, most energising feedback undeniably comes from those secretive little doodles.