Can you give us a little background about yourself?
I wrote this
and illustrated this serialized novel by Linda Sue Park
and wrote and illustrated this
My next book out is this novel
which I am very excited about. It's about Jack, an 11 year-old orphan living with his aunt at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1956. When she is kidnapped, he joins forces with another hotel guest, Alfred Hitchcock, who is staying there while checking out locations for his cinema masterpiece, Vertigo. Together, using the principles of the silver screen, they solve the mystery of the missing aunt. We just got the endorsement of the Hitchcock family and my publisher is making this a focus title for the list it is on. It comes out June 24, 2014. (And is available now for pre-order!) Did you notice the blurb?
Where, when, and why do you write picture books?
The answer to when and where is "everywhere and all the time." If you are a writer you are constantly observing the world around you. You listen in on conversations that you have no business hearing. You breathe in the smells and drink in the tastes of wherever you are. You take note of how the chair you are sitting in feels. When you are being very intentional about it, you write down in a little notebook, or on your phone, or a napkin or the back of your hand the details of the experience, puzzling out how you would describe it to someone who wasn't there, or making up a story to fit your observations.
Even if you are not being highly intentional, your writer's brain is storing away little snippets, which no doubt surface later on. And if you are an illustrator you look at the world around you and compose visuals, noting what emotions they stir in you and why.
The answer to why I create picture books is simply that I have to. A picture book is like a little puzzle that I am compelled to solve. How will I build a character, have a plot, and come to a fun resolution all in 500 words or less? There are a lot of nice side benefits- children's literacy, bringing kids and caretakers together around reading, the creation of something that will outlast me. But ultimately I’m just obsessed.
How do you determine if a story idea is worth pursuing/revising?
If we are talking just about picture books, I pursue a story for as long as it delights me to do so. If it starts to feels tedious or unenjoyable to create, then I doubt it will be fun to read. Sometimes the story is becoming too complicated, so it might need to be bumped out of the picture book format and into something longer. Sometimes a story is too slight - more of a greeting card. Then it either needs to be left alone until more story comes along, or used as a detail in another work. Novels, by the way, are quite different. There are many tedious parts of novel writing that you just have to slog through and make invisible to the reader. That's easier to do in a novel. A picture book has so few words and is so tight and concise, that there is nowhere to hide the displeasure you may feel while writing it. So don't even try.
What is your revision process?
People write in different ways. Some people overwrite. So, they may write a 2000 word picture book and have to winnow it down to 500 words.I am the opposite. I underwrite. A typical first draft of a picture book for me might be 200 words. Since I illustrate too, I usually know what the visuals will be, which saves a lot of words. Even so, my stories usually have deeper levels in my head than I have put down on paper. Now comes the most important step in revision for me. I meet with my critique group, the Revisionaries, twice a month. We read the story out loud (usually accompanied by a very sketchy dummy.) Then they look at me in confusion, because I have been so incompetent at recording the story I meant to. We discuss it calmly
and I make clear what my intentions were. They point out which intentions they don't see in the story, and ways I might surface them. Then I rewrite, focusing on bringing up the layers I left out. The story goes through several iterations like this. I try to nail down the emotional or conceptual story first, then I work on character, then language. When my critique group starts talking about punctuation, I know it is time to submit.
What's your least favorite part of revisions? Favorite?
I dislike revising illustrations. It's a time consuming process and after I've got all the story problems solved it doesn't feel as exciting to me. This is particularly true before the book has sold, since at that point I don't even know if my illustration work will be used.
My favorite part of revising is experiencing the "aha" moments when a piece of the story puzzle snaps into place.
There is usually a lot of work that happened to lead to that moment, but it never feels like anything less than magic.
What makes a publishable manuscript?
There are four essential ingredients to a publishable manuscript: paper, ink, sweat, and coffee.
That's an interesting question. Honestly I find these days that if I take more than two hours to write a first draft with a great beginning, strong middle and a fulfilling ending, then it will probably end up being abandoned. Of course, that two hours of sit-down writing is preceded by days of percolating ideas and recording little snippets of text, and is followed by weeks of revision. But it took me years of writing, and crappy first drafts, to get to this point.
Any other thoughts for fellow writers?
Get writing or I am going to kick your ass.
What's your favorite picture book?
I really don't have a single favorite. But without going to my bookshelf, I can tell you these are some recent books that stick in my mind: Henry in Love, Nino Wrestles the World, I Want My Hat Back, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.
Of the classics, you really can’t beat Where the Wild Things Are.
If you could write anywhere in the world, where would that be?
I illustrated the original serialized version of Linda Sue Park's "A Long Walk to Water" while in Bali. The assignment came in just before I left for this long-planned vacation, so while my family and friends toured the island, I sat at the pool of our hotel, overlooking the rice paddies, and drew. A cool breeze blowing. Dozens of colorful kites flying overhead. It was perfection. I've often thought of going back. The hotel was $70 a week and I could probably rent my San Francisco house and go write in paradise and still come out ahead, financially. I just need to convince my partner of the feasibility of this plan. Below is a photo I took then. Here’s hoping I can do a selfie there again someday.
Thank you so much Jim!
Jim Averbeck is the author of the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, In a Blue Room (Harcourt, 2008) and the author and illustrator of except if (Atheneum, 2011) Oh No, Little Dragon (Atheneum, 2012) and The Market Bowl (Charlesbridge, 2012.) He studied writing and illustrating for children at UC Berkeley. He was the Regional Advisor for the San Francisco chapter of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Jim can be found online at jimaverbeck.com and followed @jimaverbeck.
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