Sunday, 31 March 2013

A picture is worth a thousand, no, make that three hundred words. . . By Jonathan Allen

Picture books are nothing special. 300 words? Some childishly simple pictures of cute kids or funny animals? A doddle. How hard can it be? Anyone could do it. . . 
Picture books are EASY.



Yeah right.

I may be preaching to the choir here, but plenty of people confuse simple with easy. And, as any fule know, they are not the same at all.

Being as I am, at the simple, 'cartoony’ end of things illustration style wise, I am perhaps somewhat touchy about this.
Picture books are hard! (well, good ones are)

It's really interesting, reading the wonderful posts on this blog, to discover other authors’ and illustrators’ fascination with the mysterious process that is picture book creation.

I share their fascination. I also share the frustrations and rewards that come with the task of trying to choreograph the delicate dance performed by words and pictures in such a way that the result adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s certainly a deeply mysterious bit of chemistry, or possibly an equally mysterious bit of quantum mechanics mixed with a dash of chaos theory. . .




The analogy of a picture book with a piece of music, which James Catchpole posited in an earlier post is a good one. (It struck a chord with me. . . struck a chord. . get it? Oh never mind.)

My take on it is that a good picture book is like a perfect three chord pop song. Nothing you could add would improve it, and nothing you could take away would improve it. It is perfect as it is in its simplicity. And like a perfect three chord pop song, a good picture book is a hard thing to pull off.


OK, more than three chords but the principle still applies ;-)

So, to put my own oar into the mix, as The Poet said (he wasn't a very good poet). . . As an author/illustrator, how do I approach picture book creation? Which comes first in my creative process, words or pictures?

Well, as I’m an illustrator who at first, only took to writing in order to have something to illustrate, (and to get bigger advances, obviously) you might be surprised to hear that in my case pictures don't always come to me first. But when they do, it goes like this -

The process starts with a character, my Potential Picture Book Protagonist. I start to draw him or her to see if that sparks any further inspiration. For me, for it to spark a fully-fledged picture book idea, a character drawing has to have the potential for a story contained within it somehow. I can’t just foist a generic story (even if I could think of one) onto a character. That never works, for me at least, and I've quite often had to drop what I thought were some great visual characters because I couldn't nail down what they would actually do. I couldn't prize a viable story out of them.

I never did know quite what to do with Small Bear here. . .


For me, a story has to emerge from, or become apparent as a kind of by-product of the picture. There has to be a fit. I have to be able to say. “Ah, so that's what was going on!”

This is best explained visually. I saw a great photo of a puffin on a website I was a member of a while back. It was walking along with one leg in the air. I thought it was really funny in an endearing sort of way and had serious children's book character potential.

(I'd post a link here but it's not on that site any more it seems)

So I drew a puffin character in a similar silly-walk sort of pose. Just for fun, I drew him looking out of the corner of his eye as if he had just noticed something happening behind him. He looked slightly pompous and silly, caught in mid stride.


I liked the drawing very much and was sure that there was a story in there somewhere. Nothing came to me straight away so I left it to ferment for a while. I did email it to David Bennett at Boxer Books as he is a visual person and would respond if he liked it. He really liked it, which was encouraging, so I gave the drawing further consideration.

Then, an idea that was funny, had a connection to a child and parent's life experience, (this is important) and that worked really well with the drawing, came into my head.

It was this - The puffin was being followed. Not by something nasty, but by three baby gulls, who were imitating him for a silly game as he set out on his morning walk. This scenario explained puffin’s quizzical backward glance and at the same time allowed his pomposity to play a part, as the baby gulls were busy puncturing it.

“Ah, so that's what was going on!”



The idea developed into a book called 'Don’t Copy Me!' In which three baby gulls follow Little Puffin around, copying everything he does. The book documents his attempts to get them to stop. (I sent the photographer a copy btw).

But a picture book idea doesn't have to come from a fully formed drawing. I often find that my best ideas involve a character and a scenario, both of which arrive on the same wave of inspiration. Often as more of a concept than as a particular narrative or story. A short phrase can be the trigger, in conjunction with a drawing. The phrase can trigger the idea or loose concept, which immediately gets visualised in my head. From that, a character is drawn, roughly at first, and from that character, the character of the story itself emerges. This can all happen in about ten minutes! Then the real work starts...

My Baby Owl character, the star of my 'I’m Not' series (I’m 'Not Cute!', 'I’m Not Scared' et al) arrived in this way. His sixth book, 'I’m Not Reading!' is out now, folks. . .


I'll document Baby Owl’s journey from fluffy blob to much loved character for you another time if I'm allowed. I’ve gone on too long as it is. . .

I hope that the above has provided some useful insight into the picture book creation process as pertains to me at least. My approach may resonate with somebody, somewhere anyway. So if you are that somebody, or even if you're not, do let me know your thoughts.

At least you now know that a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words, though three to four hundred, with the action split dynamically over twelve spreads (self ends) is preferable.

Cheers,
Jonathan
You can find out more about Jonathan Allen at his website  and his blog (just click).

27 comments:

  1. Thanks, Jonathan, and Abbie for posting. I love the idea of the story coming from a particular pose. To me the small bear seems to be waiting to be given something exciting - because his hands are behind his back and he looks quite expectant. Lovely.

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    1. Thanks Maureen, Small Bear does look like you say. I don't know where the hands behind back pose came from, it kind of came out that way.

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  2. A brilliant blog! I love that puffin being tormented by pesky gulls, and you're absolutely right about the emotions in a story needing to resonate with both small children and their parents.
    Am I the only one who instantly wants to write a story about Small Bear? Everso eager to please, perhaps in a rather naive way?

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    1. Agh, I just replied and then lost the reply coz I typed in the wrong Wordpress password! grrr.
      OK, try 2.
      Thanks Pippa, I'm glad you liked it. I think that a story needs to resonate with a publisher first, parents and children come a poor second! ;-)
      re Small Bear - A few years ago I had an idea that I might be able to send characters I created but couldn't find a story for, to other writers, to see if they were inspired to come up with a story. I didn't pursue it because I wasn't sure what publishers would make of it. They do like to pair up writers and illustrators themselves really. I dunno, what do writers think of the idea? is it OK to discuss that here?
      Jonathan

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    2. I'd love to work that way, Jonathan, but I can see that publishers might well be wary - what if they then like the story but not the illustration (which just happened to one of mine, submitted with sketches from someone I'd worked with before). Or vice versa, of course. Are publishers more likely to turn the whole thing down, even though they like one or other part, for fear of upsetting someone?
      It's worth trying, though, I think - as long as both parties accept that only one might eventually get a contract. (could get messy, though, if the one who came up with the idea / character in the first place is NOT the one to get the contract... Hmmmm...)
      It'd probably be worth having a chat with your agent before going down that particular route, I suspect.

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    3. If I had an agent. . . ;-)
      (have you noticed that publishers don't allow submissions except through an agent these days? Bloody annoying for unrepresented established authors.)
      I suppose going via a publisher at an early stage might work, I'll see what issues a publisher might have when I next speak to a publisher. . Bologna feedback is imminent. Maybe a need to work out what 'from an idea by' is worth percentage wise, but then people would say, 'if it was your idea why didn't you illustrate it' etc etc. . .

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  3. You've just GOT to do Ron the Potato, Jonathan - your adoring public demand it!

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    1. Thanks Malachy ;-) I know, Ron The Potato should be a feature film too! The more I look at those pleasantly daft book titles I thought up in about ten minutes for fun, the more I think I could do something along those lines for 'real'. A step sideways from the normal idea creation process opening up whole new avenues. . . ;-)

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  4. Oh! Oh! Let me tell why Small Bear has his hands behind his back! (Pippa is not alone!) He is out looking for a friend (that's the expression Maureen noted), but whenever he reaches out (to pet a squirrel, calm the screaming baby birds, help the beaver by holding the tree he's chomping down)- he gets snapped at! Great post, Jonathon. Certainly got my juices flowing today - thanks.

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  5. Aww! I think Small Bear is hiding something behind his back, is it something he is a little embarrassed about perhaps...?
    Great post!

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  6. Well done. This is a very insightful bit of writing. I'm a children's writer and I have been asked(more than once) by friends, "What's so hard about that?". Try it, I tell them. I've yet to have a friend meet the challenge. I also love the idea of using pictures to spawn a story. Unfortunately I don't have the ability to draw from my mind, not skillfully anyhow.

    Thanks for the insight!

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    1. Thanks Jason, it's like the Picasso that took twenty seconds to do but twenty years of work to reach the level of artistry that could produce said work. Or something. The philosophy behind Japanese calligraphy comes to mind too.

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  7. Great post, Jonathan. I always adore discovering the inspiration behind picture book stories. A publisher once sent me an image of a character and asked if I could come up with a story. It was a 'pretty' image, rather than an image bursting with character (like your puffin), which might be why, although I tried and I did create a story), the image never quite grabbed me and I never saw a book with that character. Mind you, the story I wrote did inspire another, better story.

    Ha ha, I like how others have ideas about your bear. It's intriguing to see how we all think differently. I thought the bear was actually a rather mischievous bear and this was his sweet 'it wasn't me' face, whilst he hides the evidence behind his back! Perhaps your bear should replace the ink blot psychological test!

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    1. Obviously I now have to write 'What's Bear got Behind His Back?' hmmm. . .

      Interesting that your idea triggered another, better one. I recognise that ;-)
      cheers,
      Jonathan

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  8. Great post. Thanks Jonathan! Re: your comment about published authors with no agent. I'm in that position myself. I think you can legitimately say that you have a great track record, Jonathan, and they should listen to you, so do not feel you cannot approach people.

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    1. Thanks Moira, I think you are right, but the attitude exhibited doesn't make me feel valued even slightly. Whether I should expect to feel valued is another matter ;-) As far as I can see, all publishers are doing is pushing their 'slush pile' onto agents, letting them make the decisions that editors used to make themselves. I wonder how agents feel about that? I know publishers get snowed under by unsolicited stuff, and it's a pain, but didn't they always? Maybe it's much worse these tricky times and I should cut them some slack?
      I'm told that 'agents are finding it hard' too these days. That can only be a bad sign.

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  9. I think he's 'The Bear who lost his Clothes'.

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  10. Never mind the bear, I want to write 'Happy Birthday Huge Chicken'! You should definitely pursue that one... (or if you want someone else to have a go... I like that way of trying to work -as an idea, at least; I've not tried it yet (though I may well be with an illustrator friend this year, which is very exciting) but I like the idea.

    Thanks for the post -looking forward to the next one, All the best, Clare.

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    1. Thanks Juliet, The back story to 'Huge Chicken' would be hard to work out ;-) The why what and who etc.

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  11. All this and dodgy spam too. . . sigh. . .

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    1. Every day I delete spam from the blog. I can't believe anybody ever clicks on one of the links; do they? But perhaps they do because otherwise what's the point? As you say, sigh...!

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  12. Hi Jonathan,
    I am as yet unpublished and therefore have no track record and no agent but I am passionate about my craft. I have a shelf of favourite picture books which inspire me to keep going and yours are on that shelf! To me they speak volumes about the power of simplicity.
    Thank you so much for your post and everyone else who contributes to the Picture Book Den. It is so very very helpful. Don't ever doubt that.

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