Monsters, Picture Books and Creative Process: Author Tara Lazar & Illustrator James Burks re: THE MONSTORE (Aladdin)
I first became familiar with Tara Lazar through her wonderful blog, Writing For Kids (While Raising Them) and her PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). THE MONSTORE iswritten by Tara (her debut picture book) and illustrated by James Burks, and just came out from Aladdin / Simon & Schuster Children’s.
Basic story premise: Zach buys Manfred The Monster from The Monstore to keep his little sister from snooping in his bedroom, but his plan backfires as Gracie teams up with Manfred. Zach goes back to The Monstore (no refunds or exchanges) for another monster…and another…and another. I won’t give away the fun surprise ending; you’ll have to get your own copy to see. I love the bright colors and scary-cute monsters, and Gracie is awesome.
Tara’s upcoming books include I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK(illustrator: Benji Davies, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2014) and LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (illustrator tba, Random House Children’s). More info about Tara and her books on her website at TaraLazar.com, and you can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.
This post was originally an author interview, but then James was kind enough to answer a few questions about THE MONSTORE as well; you can find his answers after Tara’s. James is the author and illustrator of BIRD & SQUIRREL ON THE RUN (Scholastic/Graphix), BEEP AND BAH (Carolrhoda) and GABBY & GATOR (Yen Press). You can find more about James Burks and his projects at his website.
QUESTIONS FOR TARA LAZAR:
Q. Do you have a writing process? What was your process for THE MONSTORE?
My writing process is to have no process. Seriously. I abhor routine and find that taking the same approach for every manuscript stifles my creativity. Sometimes an idea bursts into my brain and I cannot stop it, it’s like a runaway shopping cart. I must sit down and write and let it flow without my internal editor saying “STOP. WAIT. I DON’T LIKE THIS SENTENCE.” I can figure it all out later; this concept cannot wait! Yet other times, I get a glimmer of an idea, just a faint sparkle, and I write it down to save for later.
The concept needs to “marinate” like a chewy flank steak. I’d like to say I have an idea notebook that I carefully organize and categorize, but the honest truth is sometimes I write an idea on the back of the electric bill, on my daughter’s Kindergarten artwork, or an old, crumpled Panera receipt. The best part about this is finding that scrap weeks or months later and going YES! I CAN WRITE THIS NOW!
I don’t have any rituals, either. Some days I write from a breakfast tray on my unmade bed. Others, I write at my too-small kitchen table. When it’s nice out, I go on the backyard deck. Sometimes I write first thing in the morning. Sometimes I write after everyone has gone to bed. Some days I write 5 words and erase 3. And I call that a very productive day.
I do a lot of staring. One day my husband came into the bedroom where I was working. He asked me a question, but I didn’t respond. It didn’t register; I was so deep into my manuscript. He finally asked, “Oh, are you writing?” I answered yes. “But you aren’t typing.” I laughed. “I’m staring,” I explained. “Staring is writing.” I stare a lot. The most time-consuming part of writing a picture book is the staring. (OK, you can call it thinking.)
Some characters from THE MONSTORE. Art ©2013 James Burks.
THE MONSTORE began with just a title. That’s it. I thought it was a clever play on words. But I had no story to go with it. I carried the title in my brain for months. It would pop out at inconvenient moments, like at the checkout line at the grocery store. It would ask, “Hey, Tara. When are you going to take me for a ride?!” I thought the pineapple was talking to me. And I told the pineapple it was getting pushed in the cart and to keep quiet, there was Kardashian gossip to read.
Then I attended the NJ-SCBWI conference in 2009 and met an agent I had known from social media. She asked what I was working on–the question every writer hopes for–and I didn’t have a good answer. I asked if I could send her a list of picture book concepts to see what would be the best ones to pursue. She agreed. And I had nothing to send!
So I quickly came up with a premise for THE MONSTORE: a boy wants to return the monster he bought because it doesn’t spook his little sister. The agent told me to run with it. So I tossed out the pineapple, shoved THE MONSTORE into the shopping cart, and away we coasted! The story spilled out quickly and my critique partner, author Corey Rosen Schwartz, said “This will sell!” I was submission-shy at that point, having racked up a pile of rejections, so I sat on the story for months.
Tara’s workspace. “There is my husband, my tea, my lunch and a stack of books…my unmade bed workspace!”
I submitted it to another NJ-SCBWI event, but I couldn’t attend because I had become ill with Multiple Sclerosis. It was a really bad time for me. I was bedridden and depressed. But the organizer of the event said she would have the editor mail her critique to me. When it arrived, the envelope was so fat, I assumed it was crammed with all the things the editor hated, so I ignored it. I let it sit on the kitchen counter for a couple weeks.
When I finally got the nerve to open the letter, I read the first sentence and couldn’t believe it: “What a fun story with a clever premise. I was hooked on page one.” The letter was filled with complimentary bullet points with suggestions for revision and an invitation to submit. That’s when I knew I had something special and I began querying agents. Soon thereafter I signed with Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency and about four weeks later, the manuscript sold to Aladdin. It happened very quickly. And it has never happened that quickly ever again!
THE MONSTORE went through two rounds of revisions with my editor Alyson Heller, and I’m so glad it did. It was a good story when I submitted it, but it was a great story when we were finished with the revisions!
Sample image from THE MONSTORE. Art ©2013 James Burks.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers?
The best advice I have for aspiring picture book writers is something I wish I would had been told a long time ago. Good writing isn’t enough. You need a killer concept.
Sample image from THE MONSTORE. Art ©2013 James Burks.
A well-written story with a mediocre concept will get a form rejection every time. But a fresh, unique concept that needs better execution will get a revision request. And a killer concept that’s written well? That’s your ticket to a contract.
I critique a lot of manuscripts from new writers and that’s my most common suggestion—to work on the concept. Because there are a lot of very good writers who understand the structure of a picture book story, but they write about too-common themes and are almost always pushing a message. Don’t think about delivering a message. Think about entertaining kids.
You hear a lot of talk lately about writing character-driven manuscripts, and that’s good advice. The better advice? Write fun-driven manuscripts. Does a kid want to be taught to eat their spinach and to say please and thank you in a book? Nah. They hear that from their parents, their teachers and their Sunday school. EVERY DAY. Let books be their escape, not yet another place to teach. Go for the fun. You’ll be fostering a life-long love of reading.
Q. Any tips for picture book authors looking for agents?
For PB writers seeking an agent, I suggest having at least 3-5 manuscripts ready to go. The more the better; the more polished the better. Don’t query with one or two–because that agent is going to want to see more of your work, I guarantee! Picture books are a difficult sell, and overall they make less money than a novel, so an agent wants to see that you have a body of work they can submit and sell. The best thing to do is to wait and not query too early–because if you query too early, before your manuscripts are ready, you’ve lost the chance to query that same agent with the same work at a later date. I know this means waiting years–but I don’t like to use the term “waiting”. It means WORKING years. And it will all be worth it, trust me.
I’ve also seen new writers make the mistake of querying agents AND editors at the same time. Do not do this if you’re intent on getting an agent! If an agent learns the project they love has already been shopped widely and rejected, they’ll assume they won’t be able to sell it. And you’ll lose an agent opportunity.
While you can sell a manuscript on your own, I believe the best bet for new writers is to get an agent. More and more houses are closing to unsolicited submissions. I would never have gotten a deal with Aladdin/Simon & Schuster without my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette.
I didn’t really query Joan–I received referrals from two friends and just sent the full manuscript of THE MONSTORE. She loved it and asked to see more of my work. I then submitted two more PB manuscripts and the first chapter of a MG novel. She liked it all! I had queried other agents who only liked THE MONSTORE and some of my ideas (which weren’t manuscripts yet), so I knew Joan, who was excited about it all, would be the right agent for me. We’ve sold three picture book projects together in three years (plus one YA essay), all during my “without a release” phase…with a few more on the horizon…I hope…!
Sample image from THE MONSTORE. Art ©2013 James Burks.
Q. What are you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you’d like to share?
Oh my, I think the question is what I am NOT working on now! I sometimes have too many ideas, and that’s what I’m dealing with right now. I’ve had some new manuscripts get rejected recently, but rejected from “fans” who make suggestions for improvement, so I’m eager to revise and get it back to them. And there’s other ideas just begging for me to get started on them. There’s only so much time in a day, and I find that by the time I drop off my kids at school, it’s already time to pick them up again. My days fly by. I am not a morning person, but now I am waking up early on weekends just so I have uninterrupted time to work. Err, I mean stare.
QUESTIONS FOR JAMES:
Note from Debbie: I also asked James Burks about what it was like illustrating THE MONSTORE, and here are his responses.
Photo from James Burks website.
Q. What was it like to illustrate THE MONSTORE?
Working on the Monstore was fun. It pushed me to develop a new style that I thought was more “picture-booky.” It was a bit more painterly. A bit of a departure from my other style which has more of a comic book feel.
Image © James Burks.
Q. What was your process?
I tend to work in Photoshop and draw on a Cintiq monitor with the exception of my initial sketches which I drew in my sketchbook. I wanted the colors to be a bit brighter, especially for the monsters.
I drew inspiration from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland for the interior of the Monstore. I wanted it to be victorian and old and a bit gaudy with gold ornate frames. I like to give layers to my illustrations so that there are lots of things to look at. The reader might spot things that they didn’t see on the first read.
Q. How did you start working with Aladdin/S&S?
Working with Simon and Schuster was great as well. They had contacted me after seeing something on my website that caught their eye. I was excited to take on a project that featured monsters and thought the concept was great.
All in all, I’m super happy with the way the book turned out. It is definitely some of my best work to date and I hope that everyone enjoys reading it as much as I enjoyed illustrating it.
Advice for aspiring pb writers: Good writing isn’t enough. You need a killer concept. @TaraLazar http://bit.ly/11ntZPy (Tweet this)
Tips for picture bk writers seeking agent: have at least 3-5 mss ready to go. @TaraLazar advice: http://bit.ly/11ntZPy (Tweet this)
For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.