All through October, Alphabet Soup is celebrating turning three. We have heaps of writers and illustrators stopping by to answer THREE QUICK QUESTIONS and today’s visitor is Mark Wilson, author and illustrator of many books, including Ben and Gracie’s Art Adventure and The Little Wooden Horse.
1. Where do you like to write/do your artwork?
At the beach or around the coast somewhere. I love rock pools and rocky headlands.
2. Can you name a book you’d recommend to our readers?
The Mr. Badger series, by Leigh Hobbs. The most brilliant little pen and ink drawing on page after page!
3. Can you offer a word or phrase that kids could use for inspiration if they have writer’s or illustrator’s block?
Today we are chatting with Catriona Hoy as part of her blog tour to celebrate her new book George and Ghost. Here’s a bit about the book:
George and Ghost are friends, but George isn’t sure he believes in Ghost anymore. How can Ghost prove to George that he is real?George and Ghost is a tale of friendship, with a little bit of science and philosophy thrown in.
The author writes the story and the illustrator works on the illustrations. Does a picture book need an editor?
Thanks for being part of my blog tour Rebecca. Glad you asked that first question.
People often think that picture books are simple to write and therefore edit, however, picture books are actually quite complex beasts. Picture books start as a series of words and or images in the author’s head. These words are then interpreted by the illustrator and the editor has the job of making sure that the illustrations match the text in tone and make sense. In many ways the illustrator will add extra layers of meaning and even their own ‘in jokes.’ The editor is much more than just someone who looks at the text; they have to see the whole picture.
Picture book editors begin by looking at the text which they may, or may not ask you to rewrite. They will look at it with fresh eyes to make sure the story flows, the language is clear and engaging. They may see the work in a completely different way to the writer.
I’ve worked with some great editors and have learnt something from the editing process with each book. Different editors have different ways of working but the process should be an ongoing dialogue. When I first began writing, I didn’t think about what should go on each page; whereas now I’ve learnt that with illustrations your eye should flow naturally from one page to the next … and the placing of the text is a big part in the unfolding of the story.
So the simple answer is yes, most definitely!
What sorts of things did the editor do/ask/say about George and Ghost?
I was very lucky with George and Ghost, as I had moved to the UK at that time and did not have a publisher over there. I sent a query email, as I was already published in Australia and was asked to submit. Within a couple of days I had a very positive response from the editor, which is almost unheard of in writing circles. So I felt good things would come. I ended up working with Emma Layfield at Hodder, who did a fantastic job.
George and Ghost is about half the size that it was when I wrote it and that comes down to the editor and I seeing the story in different ways. When I wrote George and Ghost, I was living in the UK and my children were going to school there. I was also teaching science in the local high school. My science teaching background influenced me to an extent, so to me the story was about the scientific method, matter vs energy, how to measure appropriately … all sorts of things. It was actually quite a complex book to write, to get such big ideas in a simple form. However, my editor saw it as a book about childhood friendship. Actually, it’s both. In this case, Emma operated on my original manuscript and removed what I considered at the time to be quite vital components. She also suggested rephrasing the text … as a scientist I had posed each challenge as a question, with the repeating phrase ‘prove it.’ That phrase was ditched and we ended up agreeing on a format.
(And it’s not just the editor who is involved, increasingly the marketing team is also involved at an early stage.)
Did you always agree with what your editor said?
I didn’t agree at first with the changes, especially as I felt such a large part had been cut out. It’s sometimes difficult to step back from something you have been so close to for a while. I emailed copies of the new text to friends to ask if it made sense and they said that it did. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the story was stronger for having some of that material removed and crossed my fingers and toes. I planned to have supporting curriculum material on my website.
Do you have to make changes to the story if the editor asks you to?
The bottom line … yes. It’s a commercial product after all. In the end if you can’t come to a compromise, you have the choice of walking away, which would be a really drastic step for an editor or an author to take. If you feel really strongly however, and can logically argue the point, most editors will listen. With George and Ghost, I insisted very strongly on one particular point. I’d conceded most of the changes—however, one change I felt was scientifically incorrect and I couldn’t see how it could be acceptable. Eventually we worked out a wording where we were all happy.
Basically, Ghost was trying to show that some things such as sunshine and music were real but didn’t weigh anything (because they are forms of energy). Ghost says ‘sunshine is real so it should take up space’ but in the next scene they try to weigh a ‘thought’. I didn’t want Ghost to say that thoughts were real, which would follow the pattern in the text. In the end we agreed on ‘And thoughts should weigh something,’ said Ghost. For me, that just felt a little better.
How did you work with your editor?
I usually work via email, that way, we’ve both got a record of what’s been said. That means that I can also work wherever I am. These days, illustrators can send big files, which is much easier than for my first book, where I had to go and physically view them. I can also think carefully about what I want to say. It’s always nice to meet the editor of course. I did meet the editor for George and Ghost after it was all done, at a publisher’s Christmas party in London, however I have other editors whom I have never met.
How would George and Ghost be different if it hadn’t had an editor?
Probably longer, and not quite so lovable! Emma also had the important job of finding the right illustrator and she made the perfect choice with Cassia Thomas. Her illustrations bring to life the emotions in the book, because in the end, it really is a simple story about friendship.
Thanks for having me visit today and I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions. Catriona Hoy
The summer ’09 issue of Alphabet Soup includes a Q&A with Christine Harris. We decided to publish the Q&A here too, with a couple of extra sections that didn’t fit onto the pages for the magazine layout!
Christine Harris is the author of 50 books, including Audrey of the Outback. She was nine years old and sitting up a tree when she wrote her first book. (She claims not to sit in trees when she writes these days. Perhaps it’s too hard to lug a computer up there.)
What do you love best about being a writer?
The surprises, in both the writing and the things I learn about the world, myself and my characters.
The readers that I meet in person and through emails, I love their enthusiasm and eccentric ways of viewing life.
Freedom and the ability to make a difference with my words.
Where do you live?
In my head mostly. But my house is in Mt Barker, South Australia
What made you become a writer?
An impulse that I can only describe as a driving force. Even as a child I was captured by stories, telling them, reading them and then writing some.
Was it easy to get your first book published?
No. But I was determined. I gave myself three years to make something happen. I started with competitions, then went onto articles in magazine and newspapers and, eventually, publishers. I have had books shortlisted for prizes that were rejected previously by other publishers. My first short story was rejected 17 times, before someone said yes.
So? All great things take a lot of effort! The trick is to inform yourself of your best markets, be professional, creative and never give up.
Are there any ‘downsides’ to being a writer?
Starvation, isolation … any ‘ation’ you can probably think of. But, seriously, it is important to get out sometimes, rather than just staring at a computer all day. Talk to another human at least once a day. And it’s hard waiting for my agent or a publisher to say whether they like my material or not. That’s agony. Some parts of writing are boring, but not many. And if I feel like that I take a break or play music or sounds. I bought some CD which are just natural sounds like birds or rain or the ocean and they have no music or words.
What was your favourite book as a child? A Wrinkle in Time. Scared the pants off me. Then there was Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids – oops, looks as though I like being scared.
Do you have any pets?
Just my husband, David. And he’s quite house trained.
Where do you get your ideas/inspiration?
Anything I see, hear, feel, smell, read … sparks come from all manner of places. What is important is to let the idea run its full length, allow time to mull over it, ask ‘What If?’ and write notes.
Of your own books, which is your favourite?
I don’t have a favourite because I only write books I like, and it depends on my mood which genre I might choose on any day.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Knit, watch movies, work in my garden, hike, read, and scour YouTube for funny videos.
Do you mostly write in a paper journal, or use a computer?
Computer, these days. My handwriting is awful now, and I can type faster. Also typing on the computer allows me to change or save very easily. But I do have a collection of notebooks that I use for ideas and some planning.
Are you working on a book at the moment? Can you tell us something about it? Maze is a psychological thriller for readers 11+ and I am halfway through, but I can’t talk about it as I am superstitious and think it will disappear if I talk about it too soon.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Write often, in your own voice, and remember to enjoy it!
As promised, today we are talking to Sandy Fussell – the author of the Samurai Kids series. The fourth book in the series – Monkey Fist – was published on 1 August 2009. (It’s hot off the press!)
To celebrate its launch, Sandy is taking Monkey Fist on a Blog Tour. We’re excited to have her visiting Soup Blog today, and we asked her some questions about how she does the research for her books.
But first, a little about Monkey Fist:
Set in 17th century China, Monkey Fist follows the adventures of a group of samurai students and their teacher, Sensei Ki-yaga. Each student has a challenge to overcome on his personal journey.When Kyoko is kidnapped and hidden away in the Forbidden City, Sensei and the kids hurry to her rescue. They are aided by the Lin, a group of Chinese forest ninja and by Master Jang, the Poisoner.
And now, some questions for Sandy!
How do you do the research for your books?
I love the Internet but when using it for research you have to be very careful that the information is coming from a credible source – someone who knows the subject. The internet is both trap and treasure. I have been collecting history books since I was a child so have a huge personal collection covering my areas of interest – and am always looking for an excuse to buy another book. I like to write about the periods of history that are not so well known so there aren’t many relevant books in my local libraries. I do consult experts and they are always very happy to be involved in research for a children’s book.
Do you have a favourite way to research?
I love the internet because it is a real treasure chest. Following a link can lead to the most interesting and obscure information. I find things I didn’t even know I was looking for.
My real favourite of course, would be travelling overseas to do my research first-hand but I don’t think that is going to happen in the near future. Unfortunately. *Sigh*
How do you record your research, and why do you do it this way?
I make lots and lots of notes. I photocopy book pages and print out web sources. It’s important to document all the facts used when writing history.
I found this out the hard way. After I finished my first book, White Crane, I threw out all my notes. Then my publisher, Walker Books asked me for references to support the historical facts I had used in the narrative. I had to relocate everything and reproduce 30 typed pages of notes. It felt like I had written another book!
Before you write anything, do you get all your research done first? How do you know when to stop researching and start writing?
I like to spend a solid month researching and thinking about where my plot will fit – as in the geographic location, any significant events occurring at the same time. Then I start to write.
I am very structured and the Samurai Kids books are always on a deadline. I allocate a month because a month is all the time I’ve got.
How do you use your research when you sit down to write?
I reread constantly. Little facts take on new significance as the story emerges. I particularly like to read primary sources – texts written by people alive at the time. One of my favourites is The Book of Five Rings by the legendary samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
Do you enjoy the research as much as the writing? (Or is the writing more enjoyable?)
If I am writing a historical novel the two are so entangled they are impossible to pull apart. But I don’t want to try as I love doing both.
Do you ever find out something in your research that means you have to take the story in a direction you weren’t originally planning to?
Recently I discovered an arquebus (gun) from the mid-seventeenth century can only fire once before reloading. In the second chapter of my current manuscript (book 5) my character shot two birds in succession. So far it has always been small stuff like that and doesn’t affect the story direction. However I am a stickler for getting the facts right and check my references quite thoroughly so I don’t often find research errors.
How much time would you spend on each book in Samurai Kids?
The Samurai Kids books are generally on a six month schedule. I research for one month, write for four months and then revise and rewrite for one month in addition to the revision I do as I go. I always say there is a lot of mathematics in writing – the planning, the pacing and all those word counts!
This is the eighth stop on the Monkey Fist Blog Tour. You can find out more about Sandy Fussell, the Samurai Kids series, and Monkey Fist by visiting the other hosts on the tour. (You can also visit the Samurai Kids website for fun activities related to the books, and take a quiz to find out which Samurai Kid you are!)