Drawing my own Lines...
February 21, 2016 • Shiree Schumacher
You know those cool adult colouring-in books? Someone got me one last Christmas. I feel bad, but it’s still sitting there on my desk, uncoloured. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it – I do. I admire the gorgeous line drawings. It’s just that I’ve never been one to colour in between the lines. These colouring books are supposed to be a relaxing pastime. For me, they have the opposite effect. As a child, I never enjoyed colouring in and if I did, I found having to keep within the lines tedious. I liked being messy, but most of all, I liked drawing my own lines.
Similarly, when it came to writing and illustrating my own book, I found that if I wanted it to get published through a publishing house, I’d have to conform to lots of rules – not always my forte. However, being new to the game, I had a lot to learn, so I listened to as much advice as I could from anyone and everyone.
I first wrote the manuscript for The Hunt for Polar One over a few days when my youngest was in preschool. While I’ve published hundreds of articles in magazines over the years, I’ve never published a book and it was completely new territory for me. I had no idea what to do. I bought Writing Children’s Books for Dummies. I was still a dummy after reading that, but gleaned enough information to grasp that this kiddy’s book publishing industry was going to be a surprisingly tough nut to crack. I also realised, while never in my career had any of my articles been rejected, I was set for a loooong line of rejections in the children’s book industry.
Where to start? I scoured the internet for advice and sought out local (New Zealand) publishers. Most publishers did not take unsolicited manuscripts and weren't open to submissions. In other words, they only wanted to hear from you if you’ve published with them before - the usual paradox. I sorted out the publishers which did accept manuscript submissions, but none were interested in looking at my illustrations.
Because I’d been sitting on my book for a while, over time, I got to speak to a lot of people ‘in the know’ about the hurdles of getting published. One insider (to the book publishing biz) said, if I sent in my mock book to a publisher (my manuscript with my draft illustrations) it wouldn’t get past the recycling bin under the secretary’s desk. You have to send a double-spaced manuscript – probably around 600 words (not 1,700+) and for goodness sake, NO PICTURES! So how do you even get a toe in the door as a writer/illustrator combo? Sheesh, I couldn’t figure it out.
So, I did as I was told and just sent in a manuscript to one publisher. Six weeks later, I heard back. I already knew what the letter would say before I opened the envelope. The message was, “It’s miles too long, you idiot!” Okay, no publisher was ever actually rude, in fact, some were darn nice, but I read between the lines. Picture books in NZ are at most 32 pages (not 48 as mine would be) and they need to have about a third of the word count that I’d dared to submit. “Cut it back to a third and maybe then resubmit for consideration”.
Hmmm. Despite my stubbornness telling me otherwise, I did actually write a cut-back version. I had to lose two out of the four characters. It wasn’t the story I wanted to tell anymore. I wasn’t going to send that anywhere. Doggedly, I sent the original off again, but this time to a few more of the four or five other local publishers who were accepting manuscripts (this number has shrunk since then). They sent back essentially the same message. “Uh, no!” They all only published 32-page picture books.
So, I had a snowball’s chance in Honduras of getting a 48-page picture book published. Ever. Either I conform or give up. Yet still, I argued to anyone who’d listen, “But they have these long picture books in Europe. Some of them even have chapters! They’re quite the thing there!” I made it a bit of a hobby to scour bookshelves in shops and libraries for lengthy picture books. Many of them were published decades ago, all of them were published overseas.
I found one such long picture book written by Madonna. “Ha, see! She has a 48-page picture book!” I proclaimed. “Yes, but she’s Madonna! Which publisher is going to be stupid enough to tell Madonna what she’s not allowed to do?” some sensible person replied.
In all fairness, there is a practical reason for the magical 32 pages. First of all, the number of pages has to be a multiple of eight for book binding reasons. Second, it’s a lot cheaper to colour print 32 pages than 48. If you then sell a 48-pager for the same price as the others on the shelf, the publisher’s profit isn’t going to be pretty. I get that.
What I can’t accept though, is the “goldfish” argument. I was told by not one, but two different publishing employees that the reason books need to be around 600 words, and not longer than 32 pages, is because kids do not have the attention spans for anything longer. “Hmmmph, now that is bollocks,” I thought. I test read my book on a number of classrooms full of kids – of different ages and they were all delightfully attentive.
Another thing I won’t accept is the anti-rhyming brigade. Admittedly, there might not be an actual brigade, but if there were, I’d imagine them all to be very serious and have bushy eyebrows. I have this ebook guide from an editor about publishing. It says, “Editors detest rhyming books. They hate them! You can’t edit down a rhyming manuscript without getting a headache and most rhymes are painfully terrible.” So not only does my book need to suit the attention span of a goldfish, but it needs to be in prose. Yes, I understand the painful rhymes part. But as for not wanting rhyming per se? Bollocks again, I say. Kids love good rhymes.
There are enough hurdles as a writer trying to break into getting published, but what about as an illustrator? Let’s say a publisher fell over the mailbag one morning and suffered a mild yet mind-altering concussion whereupon seeing my (lengthy) manuscript, he or she thought it was utterly brilliant and screamed out to the secretary to immediately contact me and sign me on. What then? What if I said, “Oh great, but I want to illustrate it, too!” According to an illustrator I met, the response would be, “not a chance!" She says, they have their own illustrators on board – tried and tested. "Are you even with an illustration agency?” she asked. Um, a what? Nope.
While some cool writer/illustrator combos have made a name for themselves such as Nick Bland (The Very Cranky Bear) usually, you’ll see both a writer and illustrator’s name on a book cover. I could be wrong, but I think an illustrator who can write has an easier foot in the door than a writer who can illustrate.
While I’ve been arty most of my life - dabbling in painting, murals, graphic design and digital art, I’m not a professional artist, illustrator or designer. I am self taught. So to my manuscript, the publisher would assign its own illustrator. The illustrator, possibly with guidance from the publishing house, would have full control. I’d have no input into what they drew and how they drew it, what the characters looked like, what medium was used, how big the pages should be. Nada. A writer usually doesn’t even see any pictures till their book is finished and ready for print. That’s probably awesome if you have no desire to illustrate your words yourself or no idea how you’d do it anyway. I couldn’t bear the thought.
So, that was that. I thought, I’m going to have to dust off my manuscript and take control. I don’t even want to play the same game all over again by trying my luck overseas and waiting even longer to hear back. I’m not very partial to being told what I can’t and shouldn't do creatively. I don’t think a kid’s book needs to be a certain length because “their attention spans can’t handle anything longer”. Also, I want the pictures in my head to match the words I wrote myself. So, Illo Books [illo = short for illustration] came about because this is my story and just like the little girl who didn’t care for colouring books, I still don’t want to conform to a formula or colour within other people’s lines.
On that note, you can imagine how excited I am to finally have my colourful 48-page picture book in my hands and my happy anticipation of children enjoying a mat-time or bed-time story that didn’t want to follow all the boring rules.