This is Jan Brett with thoughts about my books. I am primarily an
illustrator, but I like to write the story myself, or retell a familiar one, so
that makes me an author/illustrator.
I've just finished the last piece of art for CINDERS, a chicken Cinderella
which will be published in September 2013. I knew there would be a lot of
detail in the chickens and in the ballroom costumes, and many characters on each
page, but I underestimated the time it would take, and I spent November,
December, January, and much of February working long hours to complete my year
long project. I usually work every day, but the flexibility I get from working
at home in combination with having one big deadline a year makes it easy to get
behind. I think there may be another reason it is so hard to finish a book. I
get to really like my characters and the combination of the setting, in this
case Russia, and characters, in this case chickens I may never have a chance to
paint again in book form. It's hard to say goodbye, and I feel myself resisting
sending the last piece of art in that will end it.
Luckily I can get started on a new book, and be energized by imagining a
new world and characters. I'm struggling with getting a great storyline for my
2013 book, THE ANIMAL'S SANTA. Normally I get the manuscript in working order,
to be approved by my trusted editor. This time though, she has many questions,
which means the story isn't really working for her. This gets difficult,
because it's hard to retrace one's steps, then change things but still keep the
original story idea. I'm taking a different tack and using illustrations to
tell the story and see if I can get it right. Then I will go back to words and
checking with my editor. It's extremely difficult to plow through negativity,
but I listen to my editor because she has very good ideas and instincts.
Sometimes I'll use the trick of solving problems by asking myself to fix
something before I go to sleep, turning over the idea just as I'm nodding off.
I think about the story when I run too. Not on a fast run or a race ? but on
fun runs. Sometimes, the fresh air and oxygen flow will kick off an idea. My
husband is a good judge, and he can give me a lot of useful input as well. It
is very hard to know how much criticism to let in, because it taints the story,
and then "pouf" you have nothing.
I recently heard Lang Lang a famous pianist perform. I was in the audience
and was swept away with his interpretation of Rachmaninoff's second piano
Concerto. Afterwards there was a reception when he answered questions from
concertgoers at a small gathering. I didn't ask a question, but I thought about
what I would've asked if I was a bit quicker in thought. First, I would have to
say he's an artistic genius and that is always a fascination. My question would
be how often in his creative life does he have pivotal ideas ? the kind that in
cartoons show a lightbulb over the character's head, or they could be called
"Aha moments", or epiphanies. I thought I'd write down a few of mine.
When I was just starting out as an illustrator, I brought my portfolio,
which consisted of animals dressed up in clothes, to a publisher. The editor
that looked at it said, "Children's books are about children, why don't you
illustrate children?" I said,"They are too difficult to illustrate, they are
too important and make me feel too serious." The editor said, "Just imagine a
zipper on those furry animals, and pretend there is a child underneath." That
made sense to me and I drew children after that.
Another ?aha? moment was when I sketched on tracing paper with a pencil.
Ideas just flowed. Why? I don't know, but now if I get stuck I get out the
tracing paper, and lay it over white paper. Something about it triggers my
My editor, Margaret once suggested if I get stuck, to change the storyteller
to "I". You can write the story, then change the first person tense to one of
the character's perspectives, once the storyline is alive and well.
This is a strange one, but if I eat a sugary breakfast like pancakes with
maple syrup and add fruit and a good strong cup of tea with honey and milk and
sit down on a sunny day first thing in the morning, I tend to get a lot of good
incoming ideas. A clean desk also helps.
Never, never tell your good story idea to anyone until you get it down on
paper. The internal drive of storytelling is very delicate. If you field your
story to a lot of people, and tell how you're going to do it, it is like letting
the air out of a balloon. After it's written down and you feel it is finished,
then it's okay to get another opinion, painful as it may be.
Creativity is somewhat mysterious, but when a work of art unveils itself
like when I heard Lang Lang's concerto, it is obvious to all. As Gertrude Stein
said, "A rose is a rose is a rose."
Happy Creating, your friend,