Archive for November, 2009

A Quote for all Seasons

I love quotes. I’m a long time collector, gathering together others’ words and storing them away for times of need. There is something inherently comforting about a quote that perfectly captures what you need to hear at a certain point in life. I found this more than ever with writing. Some quotes spur me on when I need encouragement. Some comfort me when I’m feeling precious. Others make me laugh when I’m getting too serious (a fault of mine). So I thought I’d share some with you, just in case there are other word collectors out there…

A quote to quiet the inner writing critic:

All first drafts are shit ~ Ernest Hemmingway

A quote for chasing an elusive muse:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club ~ Jack London

Quotes for when I’m sick of editing:

A book is never finished, simply abandoned ~ Rebecca Huntley

A writer is someone to whom writing is more difficult than it is to other people ~ Thomas Mann

Quotes for when I’d rather be on holiday than writing:

Because I’d always wanted to be a writer, I decided that when I left school I needed to go out into the world and collect experiences, so that when I had enough I could write about them ~ Prue Mason

Writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing ~ Ernest Hemingway

Quotes for those who think children’s books are easy to write:

Writing a picture book is like writing War & Peace in Haiku ~ Mem Fox

Art is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way ~ Einstein

The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the same as the difference between lighting and a lightning bug ~ Mark Twain

Quotes that capture why I write for children:

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.  Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play ~ Tagore

I believe that the only lastingly important form of writing is writing for children. It is writing that is carried in the reader’s heart for a lifetime; it is writing that speaks to the future ~ Sonya Hartnett

To be a successful children’s writer you will need to get in touch with your inner child, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that inner children are all sweetness and light. They can be argumentative, unreasonable, uncontrollable and highly irritating. You will need to embrace these qualities of your child as well … invoke the forces of anarchy, chaos, silliness, danger and magic ~ Andy Griffiths

Quotes for when I need a laugh:

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read ~ Groucho Marx

I love deadlines.  I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by ~ Douglas Adams

Writers are very private people who run around naked in public ~ Katherine Patterson

I’d love to hear other people’s favourites. There is always room for more words…

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Fattening up your Characters

I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?

Bones:

  • I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
  • Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
  • First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…

Flesh:

  • I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
  • At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
  • Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
  • Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.

Skin:

  • The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
  • Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
  • Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real

It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.

What techniques do others use to develop character?

The “Final” Draft

Rabbit - climbI’m about to start the final draft of a mid-grade novel. I say final with a wry smile, because I’m well aware that if it finds a publisher there will be many more. So this is the final one before I send it to my agent. The previous draft involved a lot of rewriting, where I focussed on story pacing, structure, plot and developing the characters. This draft I’ll focus on polishing and tightening.

The next week or so will be spent doing some final planning and research before the hard work starts. I approach final drafts by going through the story chapter by chapter, focussing on a specific list of things I need to develop (as a dedicated Virgo, I love a good list). Lay people often think that many things on my list just naturally arrive in a story, and sometimes they do, but for me they’re not consistently there in early drafts. Early on I’m so caught up in plot, tension and the delivery, that the small elements that ground a story in reality and make it visceral often get overlooked. It’s the later drafts where I make sure EVERY chapter and scene works as hard as it needs to.

Some of the specifics on the list are the same for each novel:

  • Characterisation: ensuring each character is described consistently and that every interaction reveals their unique personality (quirks, strengths and weaknesses)
  • Dialogue: making sure it rings true and that each character sounds unique
  • Weather: weather rarely features until my later drafts – I have to make myself think about seasonal change and its impact on clothing choices, events and character mood
  • 5 senses: ensuring I use the different senses to describe any event (instead of simply relying on visual clues)
  • Poetry of Language: this is what I call making your words sing. I try to focus on each sentence, then each paragraph, making sure they read in a way that rolls off the tongue

Then there are things on the list that are individual to each story. These are some things specific to my current novel:

  • Humour: this story’s voice is quirky, so I need to make sure the tone is consistent throughout and that I’m exploiting every opportunity for humour
  • Time Pressure: the characters only have several days to solve their core problem, and the time pressure is vital to convey in order to maintain the tension
  • Flora / Fauna: the story is set in the Andes, so I need to convey a realistic sense of the wildlife present
  • Reveals: there are several ‘reveals’ in the story which lead to the climax and ultimate twist ending, so I need to make sure I’m building up to these and explaining them adequately (without info dumping)

While doing this draft I’ll also try to tighten the writing, cutting back the words like a weed wacker. In my humble opinion nearly every final draft could be bettered by decreasing the word count. I’m obviously not suited to writing massive, rambling tomes: I love a good concise tale, with room for the reader to bring their own ideas to the table.

So, what have I missed? What do others focus on in that “final” draft?

Storyboarding

Rabbit - balloonWhen it comes to picture books I love the initial writing and character design phases, but it’s when I sit down to storyboard that the magic happens. Images and words weave together, characters run across the page, meaning unfurls and the story comes alive.

Storyboarding is designing the 14 spreads of a picture book – combining the words and illustrations on the page to create the final layout you’ll see in the printed form. When I’m storyboarding, there are three main things I keep in mind:

  1. Mood: what is the mood of each scene and how can I capture it?
  2. Character: how can I best convey the essence of each character?
  3. Story Arc: how can I build the story towards the climax and deliver a satisfying end?

For me, these are the essential elements of story. They’re especially important (and difficult) to capture in a picture book, as there’s so little room and time in which to do so. These are some techniques I use to capture the story elements and create interest when storyboarding:

  • Vary the Layout: such as close-ups vs distance shots, different viewpoint angles, changing where you place the characters on the page from spread to spread
  • Consider Positive & Negative Space: too many consecutive spreads with full bleed images can be overwhelming, or worse, boring. Moving between full-page and part-page images creates contrast
  • Match Composition & Mood: if a character is shocked / scared, a severe close up of their eyes may heighten this for the viewer, or if a character is lonely, a distance shot with blank space around them could evoke a sense of isolation
  • Body-Language: make sure the characters’ positioning, stance and interaction with the environment is consistent, but varies across the spreads for interest
  • Use of Colour: even though I storyboard in black and white, I think a lot about colour.  Colour can be used for contrast, to create focus and to evoke mood

2009-11-03Here you can see an example storyboard from my latest picture book. I created the template in word, with four spreads to a page, and I print off as many as I need for each project. The images are small, as thumbnail sketches are best for studying composition. My rule is to keep the images quick and rough, as I shouldn’t be focusing on how ‘good’ an image is at this stage: layout is key. Most importantly, I need to be able to view all spreads at once, as this is the best way to spot repetition. I always write the text next to the images so I can work on them together – once I’ve designed the spreads I often cut back on the text in order to let the images speak for themselves. Storyboards are useful even for non-illustrators – you can lay out the words, ensuring your story fits well across the 14 spreads and gives the illustrator enough variety to work with.

I’ve finished this storyboard for now, but just like a novel draft, I’ll now leave it to simmer for a while. When I come back to it with fresh eyes, I know I’ll be better able to spot its strengths and weaknesses.


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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