I think I have book amnesia. I’ve completely forgotten how hard it is to write and draw a book.
Perhaps this is like childbirth amnesia, where women forget the pain they just endured after delivery? I wouldn’t know, but what I do know is that writing a draft of this elephant book has really been kicking my butt.
“Oh, I can show you emails,” my agent said, when I called him two weeks ago and accidentally started crying about how much harder it is to write a book about elephants than it was to write a book about sharks. He reminded me of all the back and forth discussion we had while I wrote and drew Neighborhood Sharks, which I have (of course) completely forgotten. “Writing is supposed to be hard,” he said. “The process is almost always hard. All the stories and clichés about writers and artists exist for a reason.”
I suppose he’s right, but meanwhile my internal monologue is a lot less encouraging. Come on, Katherine, you’ve written one book before. There shouldn’t be a problem. How hard can this be?
Well, Internal Monologue, old buddy, old pal… Let’s root around in the shark file folders and look at some of the evidence, shall we?
Fine. If we must.
Exhibit A: Doodles & Sketches
One of the very first things I do when starting a project is doodle out ideas as they pop into my head. This means I end up drawing on all sorts of things—envelopes, Post-its, napkins, scratch paper—but it doesn’t matter at all, because those first drawings are all about mood and composition. As a result, I end up with a large pile of tiny drawings, which I pin up on the board above my desk and move around until they start to find some kind of narrative order. After I’ve scanned the ones that work, and move on to larger paper, the doodles ultimately end up in a plastic storage pouch tucked away among other files.
Here, I’ve opened up the Sharks mini-drawings storage bag to show a sample of a few of these little doodles.
There sure are a lot of them!
Yup. And it’s cool to see that a few of these initial ideas were strong enough to make it all the way to final art.
But these drawings weren’t exactly “hard.”
Okay. Fine. Let’s see what else I have in my files…
Exhibit B: Scientific Reading & Research
Where there is a nonfiction book, there’s an awful lot of reading. Oh man. I can’t tell you exactly how many books and science articles I read in order to write and draw Neighborhood Sharks, but here’s my green file folder full of printouts and clippings (and this is in addition to the dozens of digital pdfs in a folder on my computer). Some of these articles were absolutely fascinating, like John McCosker’s “White Shark Attacks Upon Humans in California and Oregon, 1993-2003,” which is a review of that decade of history of unprovoked shark attacks. Favorite single sentence in the article? “They concluded that in California, white sharks travel significant distances during a biennial reproductive and birthing cycle, whereas males travel shorter distances, if necessary, in order to copulate.” Who’s surprised?
Then there were the articles that made me want to poke myself in the eye. I remember this one, titled “The Visceral Temperatures of Mackerel Sharks.” (How quickly can you point out the location of the suprahepatic rete on a mako shark? Ten points to anyone who can define it without looking it up!) But, as dry as it was, this article and diagram helped make it possible to write and draw the “Hot Head” spread in my shark book. And man, that spread was definitely HARD. It was the last piece of final art I did, mostly because it took longer than any other page to figure out how to clearly visually explain the information.
Alright, so you found some hard stuff. But still…
Wait wait, there’s two more file folders. Let’s see what else I’ve ferreted away and forgotten about.
Exhibit C: Bad Ideas, Terrible Writing & Endless Revisions
Wow! I wrote SO MANY WORDS to reach the final few that exist as the published text of Neighborhood Sharks. Even my internal monologue is impressed.
Okay, fine. I’m impressed.
Thank you. I see that there was even a brief period of time in the beginning where the manuscript took the form of a terrible second-person poem narrating the actions of the shark as it hunted. That was just one bad idea among many, and looking through the pink file folder I have many…many more. There are also emails, typed interviews, highlighted notes, discarded facts, tidbits, and graph paper covered in circled and crossed-out sentences.
This file folder is about two inches thick when it’s closed, which represents a LOT of time spent working through one revision after the next.
Sigh. I suppose that all that writing was necessary—just part of the “process”—but that doesn’t mean it was HARD.
PBBBTHPT! Oh yeah? Well how about these apples…?
Exhibit D: Upsetting Email From A Scientist Displeased With My Approach To The Content
Science often looks like a united front from the outside, but just like any field there can be a lot of internal disagreement. Shark science is no exception, and not every exchange about my manuscript with researchers went smoothly. This email conversation was enormously valuable in two ways: 1) the specific notes I got did improve the accuracy of my content, and 2) I saw firsthand that sometimes there can be real disagreement over facts. It was a good lesson to learn early on in my career as a nonfiction author and illustrator. But it was a delicate situation that got me very worried at the time, and it was hard to let it go and move on.
Exhibit E: Book Dummies
I have at least eight physical dummies in my red file folder from Neighborhood Sharks, dating from December 2011 when I signed with my agent, up through July 2013 when I turned in the final art. A dummy is a rough draft of the book, and I tend to print out a new one every time I make significant revisions as a way of keeping track of each stage of development. Sometimes the differences between one dummy and the next are great, sometimes subtle. But either way, it’s definitely satisfying to see the forward march of ideas and words and images all working together to tell a story.
I still mourn a few of the ideas and alternates in the dummies that had to make way for the final version of the book, and those decisions to “kill my darlings” were hard indeed. The spread above is one such example. While I love the “Farallon Soup” spread in Sharks and think it’s what works best for the book, I still really like this earlier concept, with the dreamy full page art of the shark on the left and what was for a while an actual bowl of soup on the right. But once the “White Shark Cafe” page content became clear, it was obvious that “Farallon Soup” had be a spread for the sake of balancing out the pages before and after it. I stole the best details (the receiver chain, the jellyfish, etc.) from this layout, and then split them up between the other concluding spreads. Even though it hurt at the time, it’s satisfying to know that in the end I did figure it out, and that the final draft really is the best cohesive whole of all these parts.
Oh, alright. Fine. You win. It IS hard to write a book! There. Are you happy?
Ha-ha!! Yes!! Victory is mine!! Thanks, Internal Monologue. You’re absolutely right.
A final note on more amazing accolades that my shark book has accrued in the past week: The National Science Teachers Association named Neighborhood Sharks as an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12, the School Library Journal announced it on their Best Nonfiction Books of 2014, and Kirkus included it on their Best Children’s Books of 2014. Whoo-ee!!! Thank you all so much!!