Writing By Numbers

Remember "Paint by Numbers?" You know. They were kits that had little containers of paints and cheap brushes, and they came with a canvas marked with numbers so that when you matched the numbers and painted them where they belonged, you, too could paint like this:

My mother hated "Paint by Numbers." With a passion. She was a fine artist. She was also an abstract expressionist. (She was a student of Hans Hofmann in the 1950's in Provincetown, MA.) I used to tell my friends that the only way you could figure out how to hang one of my mother's paintings was by the way the paint dripped. Mom didn't understand my literal nature, and always told me to "color outside of the lines." I told her that if she painted something recognizable, maybe like dogs - then she might sell some of her paintings.

We bantered back and forth like, well, mother and daughter. Mom wanted me to be a fine artist. I wanted to make a living.

Mom never lived to see my books get published. She had a very sad and difficult life, and she died of cancer, multiple myeloma, six days after I turned twenty-four. She always knew I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator, and she had no problem with that. She actually had an epiphany before she left this world and became my "Avant-Guardian Angel"- that's what I call her... When I chose to major in illustration at Syracuse University, she told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to "become a commercial art prostitute." Those were fighting words! So I sent her to The Society of Illustrators in New York City to see a show.

That show changed mom's opinion of illustration. "It's art," she told me, shocked. "It has composition and good design." "And someone was paid for it," I added.

Many, many years later, though, I began to understand my mother's conceptual idea of commercial art prostitution, as I grew weary of being paid to illustrate for advertising agencies and corporations. Yes, there was money, but there was no soul. I didn't want to be a "wrist for hire" anymore, and that was part of the reason I plunged headfirst into my childhood dream of writing and illustrating my own books.

Writing, unlike painting doesn't have a "kit" you can buy. There is no "Writing by Numbers." I guess the closest you can get, especially for kids, would be "Mad Libs." I loved Mad Libs. When we took road trips- usually driving from Queens, New York to Martha's Vineyard in dad's 1962 VW Microbus- which I had named "Chug-a Boom" because of the way it ran... I was in charge of asking for the adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs. Mom and dad supplied them, and I would try to teach brother David just what adjectives and verbs and nouns were. "No David, orange is not a verb." David loved oranges. I cracked myself up when I read that nonsense back to the family. The nonsense stuck with me. The family didn't. The family cracked in pieces.

But really, the point of this post is that numbers and writing seem to be at odds, yet they become awkward dance partners. You can't write by numbers, yet word count seems to be on everyone's lips.

Meet Word Count:

He's worse than the vampire who sucks the blood out of you and keeps you up all night. Word Count sucks the life out of your story - that is if all you care is how many words it is. Word Count tells you if it is a Middle Grade or Young Adult novel. Word Count tells you that you need to edit down to the essentials if it is a picture book. I keep hearing that picture book word counts are getting lower and lower. I have some picture books that have 1200 to 1500 words. Now they like them in the 300-500 range. Go figure.

When I teach children's book writing people always worry about Word Count. I always try to tell them not to worry and just write the story. It will find the right level and will become the genre it should. I know. That sounds so Zen, and in practice, it is not that simple.

But... once you step out of your picture book shoes, and you put on some adult boots that were made for walking... Word Count welcomes you to his world. His cousin, Word Document will even count those words for you. You can watch as you type each one.

Now I've never thought of writing as a numbers game. But that was before I did this:

This little piece of insanity is National Novel Writing Month, also known as Nanowrimo. It is brought to you by some enthusiastic folks in the San Francisco area who seem to love numbers and Word Counts.

The concept is that you sign up (it is free, but you can donate to keep their programs going- you get a halo if you do that) and you challenge yourself to write (at least) 50,000 words from November 1-30th. That is 1,666.66 words per day, every day, for thirty days. That's a lot of words. My husband said, "can it be the same word?"

Some people may cheat. Maybe they copy the dictionary. Maybe they have serious logorrhoea. (My father has had this during manic episodes- he could have written 50,000 words a day then.)

However, honestly, I think most folks see this as a learning opportunity and a chance to stretch their writing wings- in full view of a large audience of eager participants. This is the first writing event that I know of that makes writing a "sport." All you have to do to claim victory is to have at least 50,000 words when you get to the November 30th finish line.  Some don't. Some have 300,000 words. Personally I think they must be on something to do that- like Lance Armstrong. I suspect doping.

Last year I wrote through a week of school visits and speaking in Beaverton, Oregon, and of course we all have to get through Thanksgiving. I had a week of David, who still thinks orange is a verb. (Ironically I went to Syracuse U, where we are "The Orangemen.") I did "win" Nanowrimo and wrote over 55,000 words of a novel. I completed the first draft in mid-January and wound up with 62,500 words total.

Of course I realized that it was not about the numbers. It was about the deadline. Most writers, when given the opportunity, would rather procrastinate. We all love to give excuses, and I know that yes, I can actually be working out a story problem while I'm washing the counter top or looking for the one millionth agate on our beach... but if someone says it's "due tomorrow." I'm ready to go. Final polishing be damned.  And like that agate on the beach, what you write during Nanowrimo will not be polished.

The beauty of this thing is that it makes you turn off your inner editor and just write the damn thing.

So. I'll be at it again this November. I'm a little less anxious this year. I think. I hope. I'm pretty sure I have a strong thread of a plot that I want to follow, and I know that my narrator is way out there... but I'm going to take the challenge and get it all on paper/screen and watch everyone's numbers as they grow. Word by word. Ann Lamott has that wonderful writing book, "Bird by Bird,"which got its' title when her son had to do a book report on birds and was overwhelmed. "You just take it bird by bird," she told him. And he did.

I know so many of you have a novel in you somewhere. I did a cartoon about that a few years back- it showed a doctor pulling a book out of a patient's gut. "yeah, he said he had a novel in him," was the caption. Nanowrimo may pull it out of you. Join me this year... let me know if you're going to do it. We can support each other and joke about our friend Word Count.
My username on Nanowrimo is Ann Denial. (an angram of my name, and possibly my pen name?)



Giving Birth to a Baby Book

I've never given birth to a child. When I met my husband his boys were two, four and six. Doug, the youngest, was still in diapers. For some odd reason a lot of people seem to assume that you need to have had children- birthed babies- in order to create children's books. That's crazy talk. Maurice Sendak loves his German Shepherds, but he didn't donate his DNA to a little "wild thing" in order to get his creative license. Neither did Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter. I'm not saying that I chose to not have kids. It just happened. Life can be that way. 

What I am saying is that I believe that in order to create children's books you need to be in touch with your inner child. You need to be enchanted by this amazing world around us. You need to be curious like George, and wild like Max. You need to ask questions like "Why?" and "Who?" (I know I drive my dear huz nuts when I do this, but I can't help it.) You also need to think of your books as your children.

It's an apt metaphor: your books are your children.

You conceive an idea.
It gestates.
You do the labor to create it.
You send it off to a publisher to see if it will "get into school."
In "school" you work hard to make it the best it can be.
It goes off to press and "graduates." 
You have to let it go and see what kind of life it will have, helping when you can.
Some will be successful and some not.
You love them all, nonetheless. 

I have birthed many books. They are all my children. Each one was a completely different journey. Each one has its' own story. Over time I will share many of these stories here, but I thought that I would start with what I call "The Little Book That Could," my most successful book to date, "Peek-A Who?"

When I decided at about age nine that I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator for real, I never thought I'd make "baby books." Baby books, also known as "board books" were for babies. My goal was to create illustrated literature. I was a sophisticated little girl who loved books, some way over my head. My mother had me reading James Thurber, Edward Lear and Greek mythology when I was in elementary school. 

As I started my career, I focused on fiction, which is my true love. I published "The Night I Followed the Dog," "Private I. Guana," and "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" with Chronicle Books from 1994 through 1998. In 1998 I was thirty-six years old and it seemed like there was something in the water and many of my friends started having babies. I wanted something to give them to celebrate these auspicious occasions, but these babies would have to be little geniuses to get my fiction when they didn't even have teeth... They say necessity is the mother of invention. I needed a cool, hip, intelligent and interactive baby book to give to my friends and I couldn't find one. So I invented "Peek-A Who?"

I wrote the text in about ten minutes. Okay, how much time should it take to write: 
Peek-a Who
Peek-a Moo
Peek-a Boo
Peek-a Zoo
Peek-a Choo-Choo
Peek-a You?

But the dummy took a lot longer. I illustrated, designed, folded and cut Bristol board.
This is the original dummy cover.

When you opened it, you saw this.

The inside spreads looked like this.

I glued a piece of aluminum foil to represent the mirror at the end.
I thought the mirror was important because little kids love to see themselves in the mirror, and ending the book on the child made for a very satisfactory ending. Little kids' worlds are all about them, after all.

I sent it off to my editor at Chronicle Books and waited to hear if they wanted to publish it. I don't remember how long it took for a response, but it seems to take weeks if they are interested, and months can drag on and on if they are not. I got a fairly fast response, but it wasn't quite what I expected. 
    "It's cute. But you can't just have one. You need to create another to go along with it."

Since when were baby books like potato chips and you couldn't have just one? No big deal. I'd come up with something else. Eventually - which was over a year later, I came up with "Ready, Set, Go!" There was no mirror in this one, but I had it end on a "pull-the-tab." I had no idea I was creating "novelty books." I just wanted a surprise, a clever way to end the books.

Chronicle sent me the contract for the two board books. We worked on the design and then I started the illustrations. I tend to change illustration media like most people change clothing. Maybe I have a bit of schizophrenia, but in reality, the book "tells me how it wants to be illustrated." (Books are talking to you? Break out the straight jacket.) Seriously, I knew that chalk pastels were the best choice for "The Night I Followed the Dog." I painted "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" in gouache because it was a book about painters. "Roberto the Insect Architect" begged for mixed-media collage - the illustrations needed to be "built like a house." 

But for baby books? I wanted simple, bright, bold color with strong outlines.  However I didn't want the art to appear static or boring. I love scratchboard and woodcuts, but they take too long to create. Again Mother Necessity spoke to me. (yeah, maybe I'm losing it, I hear a lot of voices...) She said, "why don't you paint the illustrations to look like a woodcut?"

So I did. 
For those of you who are into "art materials"- and you know who you are... (when I was in art school we used to ask the visiting professionals, "what size pen point do you use?" As if that would make us better if we used the same tools...) This is done with Holbein Acryla Gouache on Arches 140lb Hot Press Watercolor paper. (Holbein and Arches- you owe me, how about some free supplies?) Might as well throw in the brushes- I use tiny Windsor & Newton Sceptre Gold brushes. (Athletes get sponsored, why shouldn't artists and writers?) But as you can see, what makes this work is that first I paint my paper black. Then I paint on top of that in color and leave bits and pieces (and outlines) of the black showing to create this woodcut effect that adds "energy." 

Apparently it worked. All of it. "Peek-A Who?" is in its' 24th printing as of this post. It has sold well over 300,000 copies. (I don't have exact numbers. I also stopped checking my Amazon rankings and reader comments years ago. I don't watch TV and I only read the newspaper when I'm in the city. Ignorance isn't bliss, it's survival.) I'm astonished and proud of this little book. I love hearing praise from parents and kids alike. The book has a life of its own. I may have birthed it, but once a book is published it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to readers- they decide its' future. 

After "Peek-A Who?" and "Ready, Set, Go!" I created "Grow Up!" and "Who Loves You, Baby?" I also sewed up a dummy and created my first cloth book, "Button Nose" to help little kids learn to get dressed by themselves. My other baby books have done well, but not as well as "Peek-A Who?" My only theory is that it was "the pure concept." It was done out of love and need. The others were, too, but they were filtered through the publishing process. Chronicle Books would love me to come up with another "Peek-A Who?" I wish. But you can't create the same book twice. Well... let me rephrase that, I can't create the same book twice. Some people seem to land themselves a franchise. 

What I will say, however is that each book is a new opportunity to reinvent yourself, and that is what makes creating children's and baby books so exciting. I have a new one that is sitting on my editor's desk. I hope she will let me give birth to it fully- and then I'll be thrilled if you will take it into your hearts and homes the way you have embraced "Peek-A Who?" 

I'll keep you posted.