The new year has me thinking about new projects, new beginnings, and how something very small can sometimes turn into something very big. Like an idea. Or an elephant. Or an idea for a book about elephants.
Where and how do these big things begin?
Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read, you begin with A, B, C…
And when you write, you begin with what you see. An image! For me, a book begins with an image (or two or three) that invokes a mood or feeling, and represents the theme of the story. That first image is like a beacon that helps guide me in discovering the rest of the story.
My first book, Neighborhood Sharks, started with a few pages of moody little sketches arranged in no particular order or sequence or story. There were sketches of moving water and vibrant blood, there were doodles of dorsal fins, kelp, and elephant seals, and most of all, over and over again, there were sketches of the sleek, torpedo-shaped great white sharks in action.
These first sketches represented a feeling I wanted to capture, and the story grew out of that feeling, that tone. The theme of the story was already there waiting in those ink lines and pencil marks—a day in the life of a white shark hunting its prey, bright red blood and all. (For more early shark sketches, check out this post on writing with drawings.)
But with my second book (and current project), How To Be An Elephant, there was just one page of sketches that seeded the theme of the entire book, drawn nearly two and a half years ago. I’d been poking around on YouTube one afternoon while thinking about elephants, and I stumbled onto a tourist’s video that captured the seconds and minutes immediately after the birth of a baby elephant. Without much thought, I drew a few poses of the newborn getting to its feet, and as soon as I’d finished I knew what I was holding—the beginning of a new book idea.
I pinned a copy of the sketches over my desk and thought about them over the weeks and months that followed. If you look closely at this time-lapse final art video for Sharks at around minute 01:55, you’ll see it there on the wall, just above the edge of my desk, waiting patiently for its turn. Those six little wobbly baby elephants watched over me through the completion of Buried Beneath Us, Neighborhood Sharks, sketches for an upcoming project, Bottle of Pop, and the second Expeditioners book. They didn’t forget me, and I hadn’t forgotten them. Ideas that aren’t meant to be often fade over time, but Elephant took root and kept on growing in my mind.
I started to ask myself questions about the page of sketches and what they meant. What came before this elephant’s birth, and what will happen next? What’s it like to start out so small (relatively speaking) and to grow up surrounded by a family of giants? What do elephant babies already know, and what do they have to learn? The answers propelled me forward, and just as with Sharks the theme began to take shape—the story of a baby elephant learning the skills needed to survive on the African savanna. It was all there, written into those wobbly gray legs. I just needed to follow that mood, and that feeling.
This book has been much harder than I ever thought it would be, and the journey most certainly isn’t over yet. But whenever I lose my way in designing a composition, or I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of science journal articles and elephant facts, I can always return to my first page of sketches and remind myself of what my book is supposed to be about. This is it, this struggle, right here. The beginning might be small, but inside is something big. Listen to it. What’s the feeling? Go with that. How can I draw and write that feeling into the rest of the book?
Perhaps some writers begin a new project by building outward from a sentence, or maybe even from a single word. But when I start at the very beginning, I start with an image (or two or three) and see where it leads me.
Thank you for stopping by my blog, and a very happy new year to each and every one of you. I’m delighted to be in a new month and a new year—so many exciting things are ahead in 2015! And if you haven’t heard yet, guess who was a recent guest on Matthew Winner’s Let’s Get Busy picture book podcast? Yay! Be sure to check out Episode 111 and listen in on our discussion about a great many things, including the “edge of your knowledge,” nonfiction storytelling, and doing research from a small boat surrounded by great white sharks.