1) Be yourself. What makes your voice unique is simply the fact that you’re you, so be yourself completely and fearlessly in your writing. Get your personality on the page. Dive into your passions, sorrows, joys, idiosyncrasies, insights, your personal myths, monsters and miracles. This doesn’t mean you need to write about yourself, you just need to write like yourself. Only you can be you and only you can write like you—that’s your gift alone.
2) See to your gusto. Ray Bradbury said, “. . . if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.” It’s crucial to explore characters/events/times/places/ideas that fascinate, horrify, confound, impassion, enflame, sadden, delight you, things that see to your gusto.
3) Throw rocks at your characters. Someone smart once said: Not only do you have to chase your characters up trees but once they’re up there, you need to throw rocks at them. Characters need to get into big trouble. Do not protect them or care what readers will think of them. Conflict, whether internal or external, makes stories.
4) Writing is revising. As Anne Lamott advises in her wonderful book on writing Bird by Bird: Allow yourself to write a terrible first draft. Then you will revise, revise, and revise some more. But you need that first draft to begin the real work of writing a novel.
6) Curb toward joy. When I was in graduate school, I took a literature class for writers with Edmund White. One day in lecture he talked about how writers can get gloomy: always alone, tapping away at their keyboards for years, often with no support or feedback, and so to compensate for the potential dreariness that might seep into the work purely circumstantially writers might remember to curb toward joy. This idea hit me like lightning—both to do with writing and living—and has stayed with me since.
5) Kill your darlings. An oldie but goodie. Samuel Johnson wrote, “When you come across a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Love this. Don’t be writerly, be you. Also, be ruthless. Chuck anything that isn’t serving the story.
7) Take your time and to thine own self be true. Don’t rush and don’t feel pressure to show or send your work out until it’s ready. Do not think about the market. Write the story you must write and take the time needed to tell it the best way you possibly can.
8) Sit in the dark. My friend, the wonderful YA writer, Nina Lacour plays the same song over and over again all day long while she writes. Kent Haruf wrote blindfolded. I write in a dark room with earplugs in and sound machine blasting like a loony. Find the way to work that works for you.
9) Remember writing is magic. If you write fiction you get to live so many lives in your one lifetime. This is brilliant sorcery—enjoy it!
10) Read every amazing book you can get your hands on.
I’ve become a habitual sketchbook filler-upper. The habit has its roots back in my high school art classes. But it didn’t really blossom until my wife Stephanie and I had children in the 1990’s. Sketchbooks were the only place to keep a consistent art-making practice going in face of the slow-motion upheaval of having babies and toddlers. I was the flexible parent. I’d sneak away to a quiet spot at 5:00 am and draw for an hour, maybe.
My daughters are now in, or almost in, college but I still do this and have filled up many books. Anything can go in the books, no holds barred. I try to surprise myself but I’m not afraid to repeat myself either. Also around this time I also realized that if I wasn’t drawing all the time I wasn’t doing my job: being an artist. So doodling took on a new urgency. It was a way to keep ideas flowing and urgent. Stuff started to happen.
Around 2009, after 10+ years of sketching and a modest career as a free-lance editorial illustrator, my sketchbook work became useful as I tried to make sense of some personal issues. Interesting imagery blossomed that looked like children’s book illustration. I had the beginnings of a children’s book illustration portfolio that was self-evident and full of feeling.
Showing this work around led to a contract with Schwartz & Wade to provide illustrations for Kevin Sheehan’s “The Dandelion’s Tale.” It was the first real picture book for each of us.
In 2012 Ross MacDonald introduced my work to Holly McGhee and Elena Giovinazzo, and they invited me to join Pippin. I’m currently working on my third picture book under the watchful eyes of Zeke Pippin.
I recently completed two titles: “Counting Crows” written by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum) will be on store shelves in March 2015. My second book for Schwartz & Wade “Over in the Wetlands” written by Caroline Starr Rose is being published on Bastille Day, 2015. But these are all other talented peoples’ texts…
I know that out of hundreds of sketchbook pages and doodles there must be a few books of my own lurking. No one else is qualified or cares enough to release them from their resistant matrices into their evergreen unique voices.
Consider: the unlikely friendship of a sprightly tern and an earthy owl
Or Daisy Longlegs, an ambitious “arachno-architect”…
A very tiny dragon…
…and a race of elves called “The Pointy People”.
A fable about The Sandman began with a sketch last December:
There’s much to do but no matter what, I’ll keep finding time to play in my sketchbooks.
Try to connect with what you really like both in subject matter and in esthetics.
That usually means accepting things about yourself both as a person and as an artist that you think you don't like or the world doesn't like.
Back in the late sixties and early seventies when I was still trying to figure out how to connect with my most creative self I finally allowed myself to realize I hated the whole style of psychedelic illustration that was dominant then: bright color achieved with Dr. Martin's dyes and big, aggressive shapes.
I decided to accept my natural love of subtle colors and smaller shapes within my compositions.
People thought I was a little crazy to begin to work in watercolors, a medium that many considered to be the old fashioned choice of Sunday painters creating wan still-lifes of flowers, and to expect my audience to be interested in smaller figures in a picture. How could the color in my work compete in the marketplace against the drama of bright, bold psychedelic images painted in Dr. Martin's dyes, or against the big heads that most illustrators were producing? Well, of course, what often happens when somebody decides to go against the grain, happened to me. My work was noticed just because it was different. AND, of course, I could draw, conceptualize, compose, handle the watercolor and understand the assignment well enough to challenge the expectations in interesting ways.
The style of one's work, I don't think is every really resolved. For me, at least, it's an ongoing struggle to find a way to deal with subject matterand to reach my real opinion about what the assignment confronts me with.
I think I've paid a price in being willing to take on more subjects than perhaps I should have. But, somehow or other, I have found among all my assignments, work that suited me and in which i have been able to show my stronger self as an artist.
I educated myself by looking closely at art and illustration (the masters) that touched me deeply, for whatever reason. I analyzed every detail—how the art was composed, how it might have been created, what tools and materials were used and in what order, how color was used, different ways of communicating facial expressions or body language. I have some of this in sketchbooks, and a lot of it on scraps of paper here and there around my house and studio. In a way, it’s okay not to have a systematic way of storing and using this information. I absorb it, and then move on, and the act of looking closely is enough to lodge it somewhere in the recesses of my brain, where it quietly influences every mark I make.
As I developed my style, I would actually try to mimic that art that I was studying --not so that it would become my style, but so that I could inform my developing visual vocabulary. And, eventually all of this close study started leaking into my work until I saw that I really was developing my own unique style. I tried tons of different things, lots of varied media, and made lots of awful art, and here and there some things that made me feel good, or resonated as an ah-ha! As I grow as an illustrator, I continue to try to take general art classes when I can: photography, lots of printmaking, some drawing and painting, a wonderful collage/painting class. These broadened my visual horizons and introduced new methods and processes, without telling me how to do kids books!
So it turns out that my style is an amalgamation of my idiosyncrasies and tastes as an artist and the idiosyncrasies of my favorite artists, whose work sometimes belies their actual habits. Even when I switch it up and use different media and techniques, I can see pretty clearly why my style is mine--my hand insists on doing some things certain ways; I love certain color combinations, and they usually show up in my work; I have developed techniques that give me total flexibility because I am not very good at commitment! But that may be changing—as I gain confidence in my artist’s voice, I am more willing to take risks and commit to a less flexible technique, and that too is causing my style to evolve and grow!
an early sketch for You Are (Not) Small
And when your professional partner also happens to be your spouse it’s even trickier, if only for the fact that you can’t leave at the end of the day and complain about the jerk at the office.
an early sketch for You Are (Not) Small
People often ask us how our collaboration was on our first picture book, You Are (Not) Small, but I think what they really want to know is how we made a book together without killing each other.
Anna’s early mock-up of cover
Chris and I have been married for twelve years and together for twenty, so fortunately, by the time we nurtured this book into existence, we’d had some practice in the fine art of collaboration, also known as, the delicate balance of clearly communicating your viewpoint and retaining your voice without dismissing the other person’s viewpoint and permanently alienating them.
early sketch of the “fuzzies” from YA(N)S
For us, there were a few things that enabled us to have a mostly productive collaboration without ending up with (too many) battle scars.
a possible sketch for YA(N)S
What helped from the start was our similar sensibilities and taste in general. We both agreed that our characters would not be human or even an identifiable animal yet still be approachable and lovable. And we both favored a bold, simple visual style that would enhance the humorous tone. Chris did a wonderful job crafting detailed expressions and gestures in the creatures, elevating the text and humor immensely. I don’t think I could have asked for a better illustrator in that sense, one who really “got” the specific tone I was going for when writing the story. Having spent the past couple of decades laughing at the same things allowed us to cut right to the chase.
The ability to speak each other’s language was also critical. Had I not spent three years at film school immersed in the tenets of visual expression, color, composition, rhythm, etc., I wouldn’t have been able to effectively communicate with an illustrator and it would have been frustrating for us both. Likewise, had Chris not spent those three years being dragged to a thousand film screenings and listening to me edit, analyze, and break down the beats of countless stories, he wouldn’t have been able to communicate in the language that I understood. We’ve since developed a shorthand that we use to give each other feedback quickly and constructively.
Above all else, what saw us through to the end was not losing sight of what we were creating and why, reminding ourselves that we were realizing a dream, and keeping our sense of humor.
Which is not to say there wasn’t a fair amount of petulant door slamming and shouting. There was. But like most partnerships, ours is still a work-in-progress.
My approach to illustration was based on the kids book artists I loved the most: Jean de Brunhoff, Tomi Ungerer, Leo Lionni, early Sendak, and then all sorts of editorial illustrators, cartoonists and fine artists.
For Ellsworth, I looked a lot at Leo Lionni's books: the bright, textured shapes against the white page.
Clousseau has big influences from Edgar P. Jacobs, a Belgian comic book artist who was from the "Clear Line" school of Herge (Tintin).
Dmitri the Astronaut had a little Margot Zemach and also her idol, Andre Francois. Ludlow Laughs is a loving ripoff of the painting of Ferdinand Leger.
Milo's Hat Trick was strongly influenced by Saul Steinberg, or at least I hope so.
After a while, all the influences kind of meld together, and you become more this unique mutt of everything you've absorbed. And then it's easier to see a common thread...with my books it's a strong graphic quality; sharp lines and shapes, solid colors, stuff you find in a lot of the artists whose work I've followed.
I took an illustration course once, at Parsons, and I was not crazy about it. The advice was commercial and career-oriented: find a style, lock into it, and go make a lot of money with it. My advice would be to look at lots of art, all kinds of art: painting, illustration, comic books, tapestries, animation, decorative art, sculpture. Copy stuff you're attracted to. Be influenced by a variety of artists. Draw, draw, draw! Don't lock into a style. A style will make itself apparent after you've been doing pictures for a bunch of years.
I’m really excited that Atheneum / Simon & Schuster is publishing FIRSTBORN, my new novel for young readers, in the spring of 2015. It was a long time coming. It’s about wolves, and the idea first came to me on a wolf watching trip to Yellowstone in 2005 with Jean Craighead George. But I think I’m just as thrilled that S&S is first bringing out new editions of two of my older books, The Wainscott Weasel and Mean Margaret.
I must have started writing The Wainscott Weasel in 1990. A few years earlier I’d published a novel about rats set in New York City, so I thought it would be fun to do an anthropomorphic story in a more pastoral setting. Once I settled on the South Fork of Long Island, which I’d known since childhood, a first draft came gushing out—almost as if I’d fallen into a Coleridge-like trance, though I suspect it may have been more to do with the fact that I wrote it on a contraption called a computer. Till then I’d always written longhand on yellow legal pads, but I couldn’t resist the idea of skipping the horror of typing out a fair copy by simply pressing a button and having the finished product come spewing out of a printer. Unfortunately, the computer in question was a primitive IBM XT, and mine was a lemon. The hard drive crashed, and not having backed up the file, I lost the entire hundred and some pages. So I had to try to go back into my trance and transcribe the whole thing again. My other chief memory of that book’s formative stages was the helpfulness of the illustrator. Fred Marcellino, who’d previously illustrated A Rat’s Tale, liked the story but was having fits differentiating the weasel characters. Couldn’t I at least give my hero a distinguishing feature to set him apart? It got me thinking and led to my hero sporting an eye patch, which spawned a whole subplot that enriched the story a lot. As did Fred’s pictures, some in full color, almost unheard-of for a novel. The book was a true collaboration.
As was Mean Margaret, a few years later. I wanted to try my hand at a picture book, and I had a farcical idea of a little girl who devastated everyone’s life that touched hers. I must have rewritten it a dozen times, but every time I showed it to my editor, Michael di Capua, he sighed and shook his head. The story gathered dust in his file till his then associate, Holly McGhee, discovered it. She thought it had potential, and a dozen more revisions followed. No luck—till she asked a friend what was wrong with it. He said it looked like the outline for a novel. Within a month I’d produced a 118-page draft. This was clearly the right form, but it still needed a lot of work. We actually taped our editorial meetings so I could replay them later as writing aids! At the time I thought this was overkill, but later, when the book was nominated for the National Book Award, I realized I may have been wrong. This book, too, was much enhanced by illustrations—hilarious ones by Jon Agee.
I’m very grateful to Holly, and to Caitlyn Dlouhy, for helping bring Margaret and the weasels back to life.