by Guest Author Jolene Raison
Redoing and republishing a book; we write and learn
There’s no one right way to write a story, but there is a perfect way. Or at least, there’s a way we think is perfect. Writing a book is an incredible journey, and working out the details of that journey is part of the magic of the experience. After all those hours of dreaming, imagining, planning and writing, we only publish when we’ve told our story in the most perfect way possible.
So what happens if, at some future point, we look at the story we’ve told and realise that perfect could actually better? We make it better! We recall, rewrite, and republish something more perfect than perfect. And as our work improves, so do we.
There’s nothing like the first … except maybe the second
I published Dear Mupstix, Love Lost, in 2018. It was my first book, and I was so insecure and unsure of myself, so unfamiliar with the process, that it took two years to write the 13 000 words. I didn’t do any research or strategic planning; I was so caught up in the wonder of seeing my thoughts in words, and my words as illustrations, that I just ran with the process. I wrote and rewrote and edited with glee, without pausing to critically assess the work as a whole. The result was a perfect book with perfect illustrations that went together absolutely imperfectly. The published book made my heart sing, but it wasn’t suited for the age group I’d aimed for at all.
I began my journey planning to write a bedtime book for five years old, but once I’d published and given the book as a gift to several parents, I realised it was too long and complex for such a young audience. Of course, I could simply have marketed it to an older audience, but the illustrations wouldn’t work for older children, because I’d briefed the illustrator to draw for children around the age of five.
There was also a problem with the name of the main character; I’d called her Mupstix, an anglicised spelling of the Afrikaans word “mapstieks” which is an exclamation of surprise, similar to “oh golly”. Of course, my readers were English, and the name lacked the sweetness and emotional appeal for them that it held for me. Children battled to pronounce the name or even remember it.
Last year I relooked the entire book. I renamed the characters, rewrote parts of it and briefed in a new illustrator. This time I focussed on children closer to ten years old, and republished the book under the more descriptive name, When Lolli Lost the World.
Everything is a learning experience, but redoing a book is an expensive one! Not only are you paying twice for illustrators, layout and printing, but once you’ve pulled the original book, you’re sitting with work, and copies of books, you might never use again. That said, for me the experience was invaluable; I have grown as an author, and the lessons I’ve learned in the process will probably not only save me money in the future but help me make more sales too.
Know your ages and stages
When I wrote Dear Mupstix, Love Lost, I didn’t do any research into what was and wasn’t suitable for the age group I was witing for. I just wrote and wrote with gleeful abandon until I was finished writing, without considering how long or complex the story should be. Now I write with a reader in mind, and as I’m going along, I pause to imagine whether or not a child of that age would be entertained and interested in what I’m writing. I also set a band for my wordcount to fall into and write according to that.
Illustrations are not an add-on, they are integral to the story
Since I originally wrote Dear Mupstix, Love Lost, for very young readers, I felt illustrations were essential. At the same time though, I treated them as fun add-ons, not essential elements. I’ve since learned that if I plan to include illustrations, they need to enhance the story. This is especially true for picture books and early readers, where the illustrations either tell part of the story, or add vital information, and means that an author needs to be very specific about the amount, nature and content of the illustrations.
My first illustrator brief was incredibly loose. I loved the illustrator’s style, so I suggested a few ideas, gave her the text, and left her to make most of the decisions. As I’ve said, the illustrations are precious, and perfect for the age group I thought I was aiming at, but not for the text I’d produced.
I now plan every illustration as if it’s essential to the story and give my illustrators as much guidance as possible. To make the process easier, I select an illustrator whose natural style is close to what I imagine I’d like for a specific book. I then write an outline for the story, with all the key plot points I envisage, and usually also verbally take the illustrator through the story, so they have idea of the entire story, not just the individual pictures.
I find that setting up the brief on power point works best for me. Using a slide per illustration, I give a few lines describing what happens in that part of the story, then a description of the illustration, and finally visual references that convey the image I have in my mind. The images I include cover everything from what the characters look like to pictures of children engaging in similar activities to the ones in the book to abstract images that convey the feel or emotion of the illustration.
I prefer not to write the final copy until I have the full set of illustrations. Writing with the illustrations in front of me helps create greater synergy between the image and the story. In addition, I’ve found that often the illustrations inspire my writing, and even give me ideas that further enhance the story.
Critical feedback might hurt my feelings, but it can help the process
Like many writers, I don’t usually share my work with anyone else until I have a final version. I’ve found that sharing snippets, taken out of context, often elicits feedback that seems nitpicky and negative, and it slows me down and demotivates me. However, there is a point at which asking for carefully considered critique can be an invaluable part of the process. People reading a book for the first time may, for example, spot gaps in the story, or irregularities that I didn’t see. There may be elements that I find suitable for children, but that other parents don’t. There may also be elements people find particularly valuable or entertaining, that I might have underplayed, and which I could highlight in the book or in my marketing.
I’ve learned though, that I need to think carefully about who I ask, and how I present the book to them. When I asked people to read Dear Mupstix, Love Lost pre-publishing, I made the mistake of giving them the text without the illustration. Had I given them a document with both, the disjunct between the images and the text may have been apparent. In addition, I gave the book to parents and caregivers whose children didn’t fall within the age group I was aiming at. I didn’t have many volunteers, so I sent a word file to whoever was willing to help me, and all of them had children who were coincidentally the perfect age for the story I was telling, but not the market I was aiming for. Had the book been read to younger children, I may have realised how unsuitable it was before I published.
Although it’s often difficult to hear anything even vaguely negative about work we put our heats and souls into, we need to explicitly ask for critical, honest feedback. Once Dear Mupstix, Love Lost was printed, I give copies to close friends and family, and eagerly awaited feedback. They were all so excited for me that I’d finally published something, and were all so encouraging and enthusiastic, that they gave only positive feedback. It was only when I started working on my next book, The Vitiligo Spot Spotter, that I realised there were problems with Dear Mustix, Love Lost.
We need to juggle being a creator and a judge
I’ve realised I need to be critical of my work, not just of the final product, but at every stage. I find this incredibly difficult, because by the time I’ve briefed in the illustrations, I’m already in love with my characters. And as soon as the illustrations are done, I’ve totally lost my heart to the tiny beings on the page. At that point I’ve started to live a little in this world I’ve created, and I don’t want to change it.
I now attempt to set objective criteria for assessing the various elements, and ask myself a range of questions as I proceed. Is the word count right for my age group? Will the book be interesting enough for my readers, will it be too complex or too simple? Will the illustrations be appealing to my readers? Are the illustrations and the text well matched?
The creative process is always that, a process, which means we can’t guarantee everything will always go perfectly. That’s why having checks in place as we go is essential. This week I re-briefed all the illustrations for a book I had illustrated last year. Although I’ve already paid for the original set of illustrations, I fortunately haven’t finalised the text or gone to layout. The book, Akash, The Boy Who Touched The Moon, is about a little boy named Akash who thinks that if he can touch the moon, he can reach Lord Krishna. I was intensely emotionally invested in the book from the start, because the character of Akash is based on someone I hold a lot of love and tenderness for. I even gave the illustrator pictures of the actual Akash to work from. Once I received the illustrations, I realised the story as it stood was too abstract for very young readers, and I needed to change direction slightly. Without having objective guidelines, and a rigid process of self-assessment in place, I have no doubt I would have published an incredibly beautiful book that was in no way suitable for my reading audience.
Start how you plan to finish
Loving the work we produce isn’t good enough; we need to believe in it too. My experience has been that as soon as I lost faith in the book, I lost my desire to market it. This started a vicious cycle. I started feeling like a failure as an author. The total lack of marketing meant a complete lack of sales, which then – erroneously – confirmed my suspicions that I was a terrible writer. Publishing a new better-than-best version of the book, I not only have a magical piece of work I believe in with my whole heart, it gave me renewed confidence in my abilities as an author. And I think that ultimately, yes, I may have lost money on it in the short-term, but I’ll make that up in sales in the long-term.
In publishing, as in writing, sometimes we need a better start if we want a better ending.
Jolene Raison spends a little time every day fishing for stars, and the rest of the time planning stories for children. She believes stories are dream-seeds, and we should plant worlds full of them for our children. She’s worked as a copywriter, freelance-journalist, business writer, and general wordsmith for hire. Her current adventures include lecturing Cognitive Linguistics and teaching English.
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