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True Story Blog

Scary Good Tips!

Happy Halloween! To celebrate, here are a few treats for writers—tips from #firstpicturebook authors Qian Shi, Natalia O’Hara, Lauren O’Hara, Nancy Vo, and Mike Petrik. Click on the links to read their complete interviews.

Qian Shi’s THE WEAVER: “First, write down all the things you imagine that could happen in the story. Don’t judge, just write them down. Then once you’ve got enough material, look through them and edit. Use the ones that make sense, put away the ones that don’t work. You can repeat this process a few times, eventually you will get a story that can even surprise you.”

Natalia and Lauren O’Hara’s HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW: “Something we've found useful is the discovery that criticism is a bullseye pointing to a problem that the critic might not have worked out. So if your agent or editor says ‘You need to introduce your antagonist on page 3’, it's possible that's not what you need to do at all, but there's almost definitely something wrong with page 3.”

Nancy Vo’s THE OUTLAW: “Lisa Cinar taught a picture book class where she showed us 10 images and we had 5 minutes to come up with a line that would begin a story. It was a really effective way to use an hour to brainstorm story ideas. You are less inhibited this way, and sometimes get good surprises.”

Mike Petrik’s SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN: “I am biased since I am an illustrator, but I don't think I would be able to write without sketching ideas along side the writing.  Maybe this is something to try if you are having a creative block?”
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Animator and illustrator Qian ('Chen') Shi grew up in Shijiazhuang, a northern city in China. Her short animation Shoe won two awards and she worked as an artist on Tim Burton’s movie “Frankenweenie.” She’s a little bit afraid of spiders but that didn’t stop her from writing her #firstpicturebook THE WEAVER—a “beautiful and wise” (Kirkus Reviews) story that “integrates facts about the natural world with this unusual arachnid adventure (The Irish Times).

Q. Was THE WEAVER the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. The Weaver indeed is my first ever picture book manuscript. But the first manuscript I wrote was for an animated short film Shoe, which was completed some year back. Eventually I’d like to adapt this short film into a picture book.
Q. What inspired THE WEAVER?
A. The short answer is that I saw a piece of leaf stuck in the middle of a spider web, somehow this scene just got my imagination going. The full answer is that THE WEAVER is a story about what I have been through my life — I’m originally from China and have lived in Norway, Denmark, and the U.K. My life was formed and transformed through all the years of moving around. It hasn’t been the easiest experience, partially due to my ever-growing collection of books, things, and even furniture! Finally, I was quite into the idea of minimalism. Although I have to admit that I would probably never be able to be a minimalist myself, I have given a lot of thought about it. So when I saw this leaf on the spider web, the story of THE WEAVER formed in my head.
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title “The Weaver” came sort of naturally when I was already working with my editor Libby (Andersen Press). Stanley the spider is a web weaver, as spiders do, but he also weaves his imagination as a way of creativity. It just felt right to call this book “The Weaver”.
Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. I would say I write by doodling on the paper.
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Perhaps it is the first spread—“Every spider leads a life of adventure”—as it sets the key tone of the entire book with spiders flying around holding a piece of leaf or flower. I had been doodling them even before I had the entire story figured out. I knew I wanted something magical and poetic for the story.
Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Coming up with a name for the main character was the hardest thing! Both Libby and I had suggested quite a few names to each other. We wanted something catchy, but none of them felt right. So “he the spider” didn’t have a name until the project was almost completed. Then I went to this Stanley Kubrick exhibition and thought—Stanley Kubrick was a collector. He was so creative and did lots of great movies which influenced generations of artists and filmmakers. Stanley works with Spider too!
Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first, second, or third person?
A. I didn’t duel on this for very long. It felt natural to tell this story in third person. Stanley didn’t talk in the entire book. His thought process and conflict through the journey is internal, also instinctual. Using first person might make the story too analytical.
Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE WEAVER?
A. After I saw the leaf on the spider web, I went on a short train journey. During the 45 minutes on the train, I pretty much thought through the whole story in broad strokes. Then later on, I sat down and figured out a much more fine-tuned story arc.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. The story and the image sort of came at the same time. Sometimes certain images come first. I doodled the moments of what the main character Stanley would do when he collects things. The final illustration came a little later, after I had done some more research on plants. If you remember, there was a 100-day challenge on Instagram. I participated in it by drawing plants, flowers and leaves everyday, which was preparation for this project.
Q. Did THE WEAVER receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Yes, of course. It’s inevitable to get rejections, especially in the beginning. I went to Bologna Children’s Book Fair to present my book idea rather than sending out submissions. During the fair, I got both interest and rejections. But because I’d shown the book idea to so many people within a short amount of time, I also quickly learned that it’s quite subjective whether this publisher/editor/art director likes your idea or not. Each publishing house has their own set of style and lists of interests. Don’t let this make you lose confidence. Always look for feedback and suggestions and consider them. You might pick up some really good ones!
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE WEAVER.
Q. How long did THE WEAVER take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. 1 1/2 years. I’m not used to the turnaround speed as I normally work in advertising/animation which is always in a rush. But it’s incredible to see what goes on behind a printed book. Sometimes things take time and it’s worth waiting.
Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A. I’m quite lucky. The initial story which I presented was pretty much intact. Throughout the collaboration with my editor and art director, we added a few things, improving the story here and there.
Q. Did you create any book swag for THE WEAVER? If so, what kind?
A. I haven’t created book swag but I am thinking about printing wrapping paper with the endpaper designs.
Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Read lots and lots of picture books. Read classic picture books - they’re classic for a reason. You can learn so much from them! And write your story ideas down—even if you’re not 100% sure yet, they might just need some more time to mature.
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Once I joined a writing workshop with Barbara Slade who gave us a great advice. First, write down all the things you imagine that could happen in the story. Don’t judge, just write them down. Then once you’ve got enough material, look through them and edit. Use the ones that make sense, put away the ones that don’t work. You can repeat this process a few times, eventually you will get a story that can even surprise you.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Recently I was just finished up a couple of short animation clips for promoting The Weaver (http://www.qianshi.co.uk/illustration.html) And I’m currently exploring the next idea for a picture book!
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A. My website: www.qianshi.co.uk
Instagram: @qian.shi
Twitter: @qianshi_design
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/QianShi.Illustration/
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