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 Claire Saxby, author of Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate, There was an Old Sailor, The Carrum Sailing Club, and many more fiction and nonfiction books.
1. Where do you like to write?
My favourite place to write was in the library, until they knocked it down to build another one. I can’t wait until the new one is opened in September NEXT year. I also like writing in cafes. Somehow the noise at a cafe isn’t at all distracting whereas the silence and call of all the housework is very distracting at home.
2. Can you name a book you’d recommend to our readers?
Surface Tension by Meg McKinlay was a great read about a girl who was born the day they flooded her town. Everyone else talks about ‘before’ and ‘after’ and she feels like the only one with no knowledge of ‘before’. After years of drought, the old town is becoming visible and bringing with it secrets. This is a wonderful story about friendship, and finding where you belong.
3. Can you offer a word or phrase that kids could use for inspiration if they have writer’s block?
Australian author, Claire Saxby, is on a blog tour with her new picture book, Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate (illustrated by Judith Rossell.) Today we are talking to Claire about how she goes about writing a book, the illustrations in a picture book, and how long it takes for a picture book to be published.
How did you get your idea for the story of Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate?
I don’t actually remember where the original idea came from. I think it started with the creaking gate as I liked the idea of the silence and tranquility of the countryside being interrupted by the grating sound as Sheep became dissatisfied with her lot.
Where do you write your stories?
I generally write directly to the computer. I always travel with a notebook and will jot down ideas but I’ve become so accustomed to drafting on computer that I seldom draft on paper. However, when I’m stuck, I do use paper and pen, or even pencil. I just write and do the ‘what if?’ thing over and over until I work out where I need to take the story. When I do use a notebook, I only write on one side of the page, using the other side for notes, or facts I need to research
What do you do with drafts of the book once the book is published? Do you throw them away?
I tend to keep drafts. I’m not good at throwing much away although I do usually file them quite neatly! I’ll print out really different drafts, or save them as separate documents, particularly if the new draft is going in a really different direction. It’s like insurance, in case the new draft just loses its way. It’s always interesting to look back at the early drafts and see how a story has changed.
How do you come up with a title for your books? Does the title come to you before you write the story?
I love titles. I love finding the right title for each story. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes the title even comes first, but not always. Then I do use paper and pen/pencil. I write down words or potential titles and keep doing it until I find the perfect title. If the story has changed a lot, often the title needs to change to reflect that. For Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate, the title came quite early although the story changed a lot through the drafting. I toyed with the idea of using specific names for the characters, but returned to the generic ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’. I’m not really sure why, but names can sometimes be too specific.
Do you ever change the title after you’ve written the story?
Sometimes, as above. But sometimes a publisher will suggest that the title change. There can be many reasons for this. For one book I did, the title was too similar to the previous one. Not in subject or style, but just in how they sounded. The title I had was also similar to another book still in print and the publisher felt this could cause confusion. That was an interesting process as I also decided to change the name of the character … even harder than changing the title. It took several weeks before I found an alternative character name that was a good fit. Then the title was easy.
Did you meet with an editor in person, or discuss your book via email?
There’s a bit of both, depending on where the publisher is. For Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate I met once with the editor face-to-face, but then we were in touch via email. Roughs (pencil sketches) and proofs (full colour art with some or all layout) are either emailed or posted to me and then there are phone and/or email discussions.
What does an editor say to you?
It varies with the project. Sometimes it’s global things, like ‘The text is a bit long, can you look at tightening it?’ Other times it can be very specific. I had an email conversation (several emails) about the placement and use of punctuation. After sketches and proofs the discussion will be about the relationship between text and illustrations and also about the layout.
Is it hard to make changes? Do you have to make the changes that an editor suggests, or can you say ‘no’ sometimes?
It can be hard, but producing a picture book is a collaboration despite the writing coming first, then the illustrations. Sometimes the changes are easy because a fresh set of eyes can point out something which then seems really obviously out of place. Other times, the changes will be about being clearer about my intention. Then I’ll clarify in discussion what I was trying to say, and the editor/publisher will say whether or not that’s been clear. Sometimes that leads to changes, sometimes tweaks, occasionally more. Editing for length can be tricky, but it’s all about making the book as strong as possible and leaving room for the illustrator to work their magic.
Do you make suggestions for the illustrations, or leave it to the publishing team and the illustrator to decide?
I generally don’t have a sense of what my characters look like unless it’s relevant for the plot (and it often isn’t). I am always very excited to see the first sketches to see what my characters look like from the outside. I write looking out through their eyes so don’t see what they look like to others. Most publishers prefer not to have any illustration suggestions, as it may limit the illustrator. There are times where I might put a very brief ‘Note for illustration’, but not often.
Do you see the illustrations before the book is published?
It varies but usually I’ll see a rough outline of the whole book. Then I’ll see coloured images, sometimes one or two, and then proofs when some layout and design has been done. Sometimes I’ll see a character sketch first, before the roughs are done. It’s always very exciting and I generally wear out my family and friends showing them everything!
When you’ve written a story, how long does it take before it is published? Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate was accepted in mid 2007, so it will be just over two years from acceptance to release. That might seem a long time, but is fairly average in the world of picture books. It can take much longer. I have several other projects that have been longer in production. The timing has many components. Once the publisher accepts the manuscript then there is the search for the illustrator. Then the illustrator has to schedule in the time (up to six months or more) that it might take to do the illustrations. Next there is design and layout time and then printing. It’s a long process.
Are you working on another project now? Can you tell us anything about it?
I’m always working on several projects at once. They will generally be at different stages and of different length. Some will be at the research and reading stage, others in first, second, tenth draft form. For example, I’m working on a poem about a beautiful old tree in our street that has just been cut down, a picture book manuscript about a critically-endangered Australian animal, a historical novel set in early Melbourne and a non fiction biography.
Do you have any tips for budding authors?
Read and write. Simple as that, hard as that. Read widely because it helps a writer understand their world. Read for fun. Just read. And write. Know that your first draft will not be perfect, but by practising a writer will discover their voice. Write shopping lists, write letters, write novels and poems. Eventually you will learn how you most want to write and to make your work sing.
You can find out more about Claire Saxby and her books by visiting her website.
Have you ever wondered how long it takes for a picture book to be published? Does an author have to make the changes that the editor suggests? Does the author need to tell the illustrator what to draw?
Come and visit us on Tuesday 18 August when we are talking to Claire Saxby, the author of picture book Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate. She’ll be answering those questions (and more!).
Claire is taking the book on a blog tour. Here are the other stops on her tour: