Happy March!

     This is Jan Brett with thoughts about my books.  I am primarily an illustrator, but I like to write the story myself, or retell a familiar one, so that makes me an author/illustrator.
     I've just finished the last piece of art for CINDERS, a chicken Cinderella which will be published in September 2013.  I knew there would be a lot of detail in the chickens and in the ballroom costumes, and many characters on each page, but I underestimated the time it would take, and I spent November, December, January, and much of February working long hours to complete my year long project.  I usually work every day, but the flexibility I get from working at home in combination with having one big deadline a year makes it easy to get behind.  I think there may be another reason it is so hard to finish a book.  I get to really like my characters and the combination of the setting, in this case Russia, and characters, in this case chickens I may never have a chance to paint again in book form.  It's hard to say goodbye, and I feel myself resisting sending the last piece of art in that will end it.
     Luckily I can get started on a new book, and be energized by imagining a new world and characters.  I'm struggling with getting a great storyline for my 2013 book, THE ANIMAL'S SANTA.   Normally I get the manuscript in working order, to be approved by my trusted editor.  This time though, she has many questions, which means the story isn't really working for her.  This gets difficult, because it's hard to retrace one's steps, then change things but still keep the original story idea.  I'm taking a different tack and using illustrations to tell the story and see if I can get it right.  Then I will go back to words and checking with my editor.  It's extremely difficult to plow through negativity, but I listen to my editor because she has very good ideas and instincts.  Sometimes I'll use the trick of solving problems by asking myself to fix something before I go to sleep, turning over the idea just as I'm nodding off.  I think about the story when I run too.  Not on a fast run or a race ? but on fun runs.  Sometimes, the fresh air and oxygen flow will kick off an idea.  My husband is a good judge, and he can give me a lot of useful input as well.  It is very hard to know how much criticism to let in, because it taints the story, and then "pouf" you have nothing.
     I recently heard Lang Lang a famous pianist perform.  I was in the audience and was swept away with his interpretation of Rachmaninoff's second piano Concerto.  Afterwards there was a reception when he answered questions from concertgoers at a small gathering.  I didn't ask a question, but I thought about what I would've asked if I was a bit quicker in thought.  First, I would have to say he's an artistic genius and that is always a fascination.  My question would be how often in his creative life does he have pivotal  ideas ? the kind that in cartoons show a lightbulb over the character's head, or they could be called "Aha moments", or epiphanies.  I thought I'd write down a few of mine.
     When I was just starting out as an illustrator, I brought my portfolio, which consisted of animals dressed up in clothes, to a publisher.  The editor that looked at it said,  "Children's books are about children, why don't you illustrate children?"  I said,"They are too difficult to illustrate, they are too important and make me feel too serious."  The editor said, "Just imagine a zipper on those furry animals, and pretend there is a child underneath."  That made sense to me and I drew children after that.
     Another ?aha? moment was when I sketched on tracing paper with a pencil.  Ideas just flowed.  Why?  I don't know, but now if I get stuck I get out the tracing paper, and lay it over white paper.  Something about it triggers my creative thoughts.
    My editor, Margaret once suggested if I get stuck, to change the storyteller to "I".  You can write the story, then change the first person tense to one of the character's perspectives, once the storyline is alive and well.
     This is a strange one, but if I eat a sugary breakfast like pancakes with maple syrup and add fruit and a good strong cup of tea with honey and milk and sit down on a sunny day first thing in the morning, I tend to get a lot of good incoming ideas.  A clean desk also helps.
     Never, never tell your good story idea to anyone until you get it down on paper.  The internal drive of storytelling is very delicate.  If you field your story to a lot of people, and tell how you're going to do it, it is like letting the air out of a balloon.  After it's written down and you feel it is finished, then it's okay to get another opinion, painful as it may be.
     Creativity is somewhat mysterious, but when a work of art unveils itself like when I heard Lang Lang's concerto, it is obvious to all.  As Gertrude Stein said, "A rose is a rose is a rose."
     Happy Creating, your friend, 

         Jan Brett