It’s time to date your book.
This isn’t exactly like real dating, of course. You don’t have to dress up, there’s no drinking involved, and you don’t have to say a single word aloud (but then again if what you need is a black dress and some red wine, then by all means go for it!).
What I mean when I say to “date your book” is that you need to spend time getting to know your project, just like you would need to spend time getting to know a new person in your life. There are no rules for doing this—the writing process is as different for each author as authors are different from one another—but perhaps we can draw some simple parallels to dating and discover a few basic guidelines when it comes to courting books. I’ve been through this bookmaking process a few times now, but the next step, the space between initial idea and the draft, is still as exciting, terrifying, and mysterious to me as ever. Anything is possible, everything is new, and the big commitments have yet to be made.
So are you ready? Me neither, but let’s jump in anyway!
1. Ask questions.
There’s an instinct inside you that told you to pick this project, and now you want to find out if that instinct was right or wrong. You don’t have to interrogate your book—this isn’t a job interview, just a date!—but find a place to sit down and spread out your notes where you can ask questions and find out more. Does your book want to grow up to be a novel? Does it want to have pictures? What’s its general mood? Will it play well with children, or is it made for adults? Would this be a short-term relationship or a multi-year commitment? With How To Be An Elephant I knew that the book would be a 48-page nonfiction picture book from the beginning, but it was only through asking questions that I started learning more about the specifics of the story, and that it wanted to be a book about family (and not just a cute baby elephant).
2. Listen to the answers. Take notes.
That seems a little obvious, right? Ask questions and then listen to the answers? But as with any conversation, sometimes we’re so busy thinking about what we want to hear that we don’t hear the thing that is actually being said. Books seem to have a mind of their own, a direction they want to lead you in, so it’s good to keep track of all the answers that are relevant to your project, and maybe even the ones that aren’t. For example, when I was first researching Elephant, I learned that mammoths are more closely related to Asian elephants than African elephants. I also learned all kinds of things about the geology and ecosystem of Mount Kilimanjaro that feeds the swamps and water sources in Amboseli National Park. Interesting facts, to be sure, and I kept track of these kind of tidbits at first, but soon enough I saw that they were totally irrelevant to a contemporary picture book about a family of elephants and I focused on to more pressing information, like behavior and biology.
3. Keep an open mind.
Think you know your book after just one conversation? You might be right, but then again… maybe not. It’s so tempting for me to commit early on to what I think the book should be, but it’s best to try and stay as flexible as possible for as along as possible so as not to force a project to be something it’s not meant to be. Before going on my Kenya research trip, I was dead-set on including an elephant scene set in Tsavo National Park, where the soil is bright red from the high iron content, which in turn paints the elephants bright red too. I couldn’t get the color palate out of my mind for months and could hardly wait to see it in person. But upon arriving in Kenya, I immediately saw that I’d have to choose between my priorities: If I was totally committed to red elephants, I’d have to follow the story of the southern population of elephants that migrate between Tsavo and Amboseli National Park. But if I was totally committed to a book about family, then that population wasn’t quite right because all my time with the science research teams happened along the Samburu-Laikipia migration route in central Kenya, a totally different group of elephants. In the end I broke up with my red elephant idea, and I think the book now is much better for it. But it would have been a little easier if I hadn’t latched onto that idea so early on!
4. Check in with your book.
A great many authors and artists do their work on a strict schedule—four hours in the morning, a break for lunch, emails, the gym, then four more hours of work in the evening. While I completely believe in setting up routines and date nights to hang out with your book, there’s nothing wrong with going off-schedule when tackling a new project, which seems to come and go in waves of ideas and creativity. Maybe you usually write in the morning, but if your book comes to mind in the afternoon, by all means, make a note or draw a quick sketch! Doing this is like sending a little mental text message to your project—hey I’m thinking of you!—and it helps keep the ideas moving in those first weeks of development.
5. Find the fun!
No one likes a self-defeating attitude—not you, not your date, and definitely not your book. Being stressed-out or frustrated is unavoidable at so many points in the bookmaking process (I’ve spent so many dozens of hours feeling stuck while working on Elephant!), but in the beginning it’s important to stay playful and loose and find the joy in the possibilities of your book. Remember what it is you liked about this project, and be willing to follow that fun. Appreciate it in that way, and ask a few more questions! And never overlook the fun to be had in a little bit of mud.