Monday 25 July 2022

An Interview with John Condon - Lynne Garner

I can't remember how this happened but these things do and I no longer ask why. I recently virtually met picture book writer John Condon. Now, I'm always interested in how other writers work. So, I started asking questions and this was the result of my unintended interview.

Me: Inspiration - how and when does inspiration strike you? 

John:  Gosh! Inspiration can, and has, struck at any and every moment you can imagine. I’ve come up with ideas watching TV, reading news articles, scrolling through various social media feeds, listening to music, and whilst having conversations. I’ve also come up with ideas whilst drifting off to sleep, waking up from sleep, and even DURING sleep. I’ve gotten quite good at spotting an idea, so even whilst sleeping, my unconscious mind will switch on once an idea reveals itself and I’ll wake up!

So, my top tip for all new writers is to keep a notebook and pencil, or a (charged) phone on their person, or close to hand, at ALL times. So you never lose that initial idea.

Me: How do you know when an idea will make a good picture book?

John:  It’s tricky to know which ideas will make the best picture books, but it’s usually the simplest and clearest ones. I often generate ideas that my editors tell me should be chapter books. I’m still reluctant to write one of those, so I’ve often squished a chapter book idea into a picture book format, only for it to be rejected. Understandably!

Me: I sketch out ideas on paper. How do you plan your books?

John: I’ve developed my process over the years, and I think I’ve gotten it to a place where it works for me now. In the past I’d get an idea, rush to the end (in my head) and then straight away start writing a draft, with my only intention being to get from the A to the Z that I’d already generated. Often this approach would result in a protracted journey with a frustrating conclusion. Now, I don’t rush to first draft. Instead, I generate ideas and add to them over time. I let them gestate and ruminate and slowly build them in the form of an outline. 


Once I have a page or so of information (I write in MS Word) I revaluate the idea. If it feels simple but exciting, familiar but surprising, I start to split the outline into spreads. I’ll be doing this with a few ideas at the same time. Never falling in love with any of them until one demands my attention. If all my eggs aren’t in one basket, I’ll be less inclined to make the mistake of wanting it to work and committing to it too early. If the outline breaks down across spreads seamlessly, the imagery invades my daydreams and the characters start to come alive and talk to me, that’s when I pause everything else and commit to this idea.


At that point, the process becomes a collaborative one. I ask my wonderful crit group for their thoughts, because they’re all talented storytellers, and they’ll beat it into even better shape. I’ll then carry on developing it at pace... unless they’ve told me it’s another chapter book idea.


Me: I've been asked to make a variety of changes to my picture books. What types of changes have you been asked to make?


John: For my book The Wondrous Dinosaurium, the publisher had concerns about the title and they asked me to come up with alternatives. I thought I’d nailed it with one of them (and it was used as a placeholder for a while) but we ultimately went back to the original one. Looking back, I wish we’d gone with the simpler title as people often stumble over or misremember the chosen one. 


The Wonderous Dinosaurium

For my latest book The Best Bear Tracker the publisher had the story for a year. I then received a call saying the ending wasn't working. They were very good about it and agreed for me to have a go at some alternatives. I provided them with around five or six. Thankfully they loved one of them and that’s the one you see in the published version. The previous ending was soooo different. I much prefer this one though.

The Best Bear Tracker


Me: I've worked on stories for months even years. What’s the longest you’ve worked on a story?

The Pirates are Coming
John: I sold the ideas for The Pirates Are Coming, during the Christmas of 2015 but it didn't get published until Feb 2020. I had moments of self-doubt along the way, and bombarded my poor editor with lots of versions, including one or two with an astonishing amount of alliteration. Thankfully she rejected those. She is a wonderful and patient editor and really helped me hone the story.

Me: Are you working on ideas now?

I’m always working on new ideas. As they say, ‘watch this space.’

Me: Thanks John for sharing your journey. And I've made note to get myself a crit group. 

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