Monday, 31 March 2014

A writing process described

Moira Butterfield

A cover from the work in progress described below.

 “I like your story. When I read it, it’s like a movie in my head.”
That was part of a lovely email sent to me by a young US reader this week, and I was delighted with the phrase she used because it struck a chord with me, and made me think about my work process.
I work on books for all ages and in several genres. Whether I’m working on story material, non-fiction or practical make-and-do ideas. I’m doing my best to take my reader on a journey, and to do that I’m trying to imagine what effect the words and images are going to have. If my reader can ‘see a movie’ in their head, I’ve succeeded.
This chimes with something I’ve been working on in the last few weeks, so I thought I’d share the work process on the project, because it’s a particularly lively one. By-the-by, it’s also a peek into a different kind of author commission – intensive, fast and team-led – rather than picture book texts that develop over time without a specific brief. However, there are similarities.
The brief I’m going to explore came from an educational publisher Wayland. They wanted a series for children who are in the very first years of school (and who would therefore still respond to a picture book approach). For the visuals we had to use existing photography from photo-libraries where possible, combined in some way with backgrounds. The subject of the series was to be ‘my feelings’. The feelings were already chosen – When I’m - sad, angry, surprised, happy. The size was set – 210 x 210mm, 24pp. Now it was down to me to think of a way to do it (and do it very fast!).
The first step I took was to get out my sketchbook, and I began to think and to doodle ideas. What would a child think about being angry or being sad? How could words and pictures help them to think about it? How could I create books that were helpful and positive but not moralizing and patronising? How would the books work in a classroom or with a parent?
I didn’t think of all these questions at once. They came to me as I mused and doodled and, crucially, when I started running mini movies in my head imagining children using the books. I guess I started to imagine myself as a child. Yes, that sounds a little weird, and I do occasionally wonder if I am, in fact, crazy when I do this – But then I think most authors must probably feel this way at times. 
I soon realized that I wanted a great deal of fun in the ‘feeling’ books, and I wanted lively imaginative action – such as feeling angry enough to blow up like a volcano, making a face angry enough to scare monsters or feeling angry enough to bellow like an elephant.

Rough sketches and scribbles for 'Angry'
Each book needed to be crafted to create a strong shared experience and give opportunities for role-playing. Above all they needed to be fun. That approach could only work if we combined the photographs with very lively graphics. 
Here's me playing about with ideas for an 'angry' contents page (and repeating myself!).

Soon I was writing, sketching and selecting a range of possible photos, and luckily I found I was working with a fantastic design/illustrator team at Rocket Design in East Anglia. They really ‘got’ my ideas, ran with them and made them work. 

The designers took my text, sketches and photo suggestions and made them dynamic.

After writing an initial draft of the first book I realized that I needed to add more interactivity. I added extra words that children could say, such as ‘pop’ or ‘boom’, that could be integrated into the visuals. I wanted my young readers to really start acting and to have a laugh whilst thinking about themselves! I even added a whole acting spread at the back. 
An 'acting' spread in the process of being designed (the text relates to the rest of the book)

The words needed to be rhythmic so that they were easily and satisfyingly read aloud (perhaps by a teacher to a whole class, or by a child to a reading mentor). They had to get across the meaning, obviously, and also give the designers opportunities for those lively graphics. Of course, the text evolved as it went along, and I went down one or two wrong routes and had to reverse: 
 “Is angry really the right emotion for stubbing a toe? Hmm…Now I come to think of it, probably not. I’d be more likely to blub.”
The whole project sounds a bit complicated when written down, but it was mostly intuitive. However, it only gelled because I made sure I constantly thought of the child who was my reader. It’s the same technique I would use for any age-group or children’s book genre I was working on. It sounds quite intense, and does feel intense. For any genre, I'm putting in maximum effort and thought.

The thinking process would be similar in a picture book, but then one would have the time and space to go in any direction, unfettered. You might make a mood board, perhaps, or simply sit and play with words. You’d be unlikely to send sketches with your story, but perhaps you might do a few privately to help you think about a character. I’d be interested to hear. Do you perhaps run a movie in your head, then change it and follow different paths? And do you feel a bit crazy sometimes? Is it, at times, a very intense experience?

Perhaps I should do another ‘feelings’ book especially for authors: ‘When I’m creating...’! 

Cover designs
PS: the books are still being worked on and haven’t gone to press yet. Many thanks to Debbie Foy and Steve White-Thomson for agreeing to let me write about the project.


  1. What a very interesting post! Thanks, Moira. And what a fab commission! I love emotions books and yours are going to be great. How said you had to work fast in your team. I'm really interested to know more. How long do you reckon it was between being given the commission and having finished your part of the work? And how good to be able to do the creating of the whole book/idea in addition to writing it. Clare. PS If you ever can't do one and they need someone to step in quick...!!!

  2. Thanks Mrs! The project was mentioned before Xmas, so I was thinking about it, but it only got a green light after Xmas. I had to come up with all four books by the end of February. Deadlines are getting shorter and shorter for this kind of commission! I only said 'yes' because I really liked the idea of doing something new, and I'm used to working fast. But it could have gone very wonky indeed, if the publisher hadn't liked my approach!

  3. Yes, I recognise that seeing a picture book as an active film or movie! I don't draw it out, because that's not my way, but I 'live' it in my mind, and then write notes about the visual side along with the text that brings that alive with sounds and actions. Those look wonderful books, Moira!

  4. I think this internal visual process we have is so interesting, Pippa. Could be a skill that picture book authors who are starting out could hone?

  5. Like Moira, I draw a lot when I start out. I also do a lot of reading out loud, with character voices of course! I love the end result - your descriptions of anger are spot on and the pictures are great :)

  6. I'd like to be a fly on the wall listening to your performances, Abie! We all sound bonkers, don't we : )

  7. What a fun project. It would have been fun for an illustrator to do rather than giving money to Getty images or whoever, but then I'm biased ;-) And it looks like it worked really well with the photos, so well done everybody involved.
    Being an Illustrator who writes rather than the other way round doesn't prevent me from having to stop myself from 'writing the drawings' sometimes, so I am right behind your approach of getting a visual understanding of what you are doing early on.

  8. I agree it would have been great to have an illustrator do the kids. Educational publisher budgets being what they are (and schedules being so barmy), this just doesn't happen any more. So we have to do the best we can and try to ease illustration in! There is definitely some creative fun to be had by mixing the two, luckily.

  9. The books look fab, Moira, and I'm in awe of your sketches. Like Pippa, I 'see' stories unfold in my head.