Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity.
Quantity is more important than quality, especially at the beginning of a new goal. Nevertheless, it is uncomfortable to implement.
It means posting online knowing full well that I am not happy with how it turned out.
It means writing page after page, knowing there are errors and inconsistencies in the pages before.
It means taking videos without the best equipment, talking even though I have trouble getting the words out, and showing my face when I have a bad hair day.
It’s not pretty, but it is important.
Why is quantity more important? One of the biggest and most obvious reasons in my opinion is that algorithms favor quantity and consistency over quality. . .until it spills over into spam.
It’s not just algorithms, people favor it too. If the greatest artist in the world disappears for a few weeks you will forget they existed, but if a new photo or video pops up every day on your feed, you will be constantly reminded how great they are.
The second reason is not as obvious. Improvement does not come from creating one perfect thing. It comes from the process of creating over and over again, receiving feedback, and improving over time.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Will Durant
Here are 5 things more important than quality:
These 5 things will appear when you commit to create something every day, and they will show their value through steadily ripening quality.
When you critique your own or another person’s picture book manuscript you can use my Picture Book Cheat Sheet as a guide to probing questions and analysis. Get it here.
Besides this, be a good reader. Your feelings and opinions will go a long way, helping you discover what works and what doesn’t.
Your critique is an argumentative response to probing questions, feelings, and opinions, supported by evidence from the text or visuals.
After you have interrogated the content, develop an argument describing how and why the content does or does not aid the creator’s objectives. Refer directly to related best practices and identify textual or visual evidence to support your argument.
You will have to take notes (they could be mental notes) so you can provide detailed examples.
A good critique focuses on the content.
Straying from the content leads to problems, such as:
Provide a way forward. This does not mean you have to solve your partner’s problems. I become very suspicious of arguments that try too hard to solve my problems because they are prone to personal agendas, subjectivity, and misrepresentation.
Think along the lines of the 10-second rule: “If they can't fix in 10 seconds or less, don’t point it out.” Not really. Revising will always take longer than 10 seconds, but if there is not a clear and simple way to fix the problem, then there is not a path forward and you will leave your partner feeling lost.
Before you deliver your argument, analyze it as well. Be sure you can constructively deliver the argument.
There is no need to mince words. A direct and honest critique is the best way to get to the point and let someone else have the floor.
Start on a positive note, and end on a positive note (a Bad News Sandwich). I don’t like the bad news sandwich personally, because it suggests that critique is a negative thing. A critique is not about listing everything bad; it is about building.
Nevertheless, it is important for a healthy critique group that everyone leaves feeling like the experience was constructive. Because bad news is louder than good news, starting on a positive note and ending on a positive note will emphasize the constructive experience.
Finally, if multiple people support a critique, or say the same thing, there must be something to it. So, if you agree with someone else’s critique, chime in. It will let your partner know to pay attention.
Let me give you an example of a good critique following the points above:
“If your audience is 6 to 8-year-olds, who are reading books on their own, then you likely want to select words that are challenging but simple to understand from context. Words on lines five, ten, and twelve are difficult words to pronounce and understand without assistance.”:
A Good Critique Is:
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Definitely an artist. I dressed up as an artist as an 8-year old when my friend had a "Come as what you want to be when you grow up" birthday party.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Books, tv, and the world.
Do you have any influences?
I love Trina Schart Hyman, PJ Lynch, Joseph Zbvuik, The PreRaphaelites, Jonathan Stroud, and Lloyd Alexander.
Can you describe your process?
Thumbnail, sketch, refined sketch, digital color study, print the sketch on watercolor paper, and paint.
Who is your favorite author/illustrator?
Illustrators: Trina Schart Hyman, Iris Compiet, Pj Lynch,
Authors: Jonathan Stoud, Susanna Clarke, Marissa Mayer, Diana Wynne Jones, Lewis Schcaar,
Do you keep a sketchbook or a writing journal?
Yes. I have so many notebooks and sketchbooks.
Is there any story that you wish you could retell or illustrate?
So many. I love fairy tales. Someday, I'd like to do a retelling of The Three Spinners (A fairy tale kind of like Rumplestiltskin) because I think it's funny.
What do you do when you are not writing or illustrating?
Watch k-dramas, walk, cook, read, and garden.
What do you think makes a good story?
A story needs to have a reason to exist. A purpose in the telling, something that we can learn from and become better people because of it, plus feel emotionally connected to.
What makes a good author or illustrator?
One that works hard with a goal in mind.
What is one thing that others don’t know about you?
I have a flipper tooth. It's a fake tooth connected to a retainer that I can take in and out. Someday I might get an implant but I'm kind of scared of that idea, plus they are pricey. So I just still have the flipper.
Are you working on any projects that you can talk about right now?
I'm working on an illustrated novel called The Magpie Magician. It's getting close to the point where I'll be ready to submit to agents and publishers and I'm excited. There is more info about the story on my website talesfantastic.com
Rewrite / Redraw it
Time-consuming or difficult changes top the list, not only because they are a major setback to progress, but also because they are incredibly disappointing. Understandably, it feels like a personal rejection.
Do Something That is Already There
Sometimes a critique partner will tell you to add something that is already there. And while it is deeply satisfying to point it out, it is also frustrating to feel like your partner did not pay attention.
Change it Back to the Way it Was Before
When you fix a problem only to have a critique partner encourage you to change it back next month, you may feel stuck. It may cause you to question whether or not there is a deeper problem. Maybe there is.
Similarly, it is disheartening to receive competing feedback from different partners. But, in this case, the solution is simple because you can choose to go with your intuition.
I Don't Like it. . .
When a critique is vague or over-generalized, you are not left with a path forward. A good example is, "I don't like it." This is a bad critique.
You don't need detailed solutions for every problem. I am wary of details. When a critique partner is too specific, I question the agenda of the partner. Perhaps they are trying to add their flavor or they are making assumptions about my experience. Evaluate detailed critiques with caution.
This Reminds Me of. . .
Not many people like being compared to others. It may make them self-conscious, or feel derivative. But it is an important critique because you need to know what impressions you are leaving on your audience. You need to know if your work is derivative, even if it hurts.
The Critique Reflects Misunderstanding
Sometimes a critique can be so off-base that you wonder where it came from at all. This is a good opportunity to evaluate how you are conveying your idea.
Your Partner Has an Agenda
If a critique partner does not like rhyming picture books then they may pursue that agenda in their critique of your manuscript. This goes for any pet peeve, but it may also apply to partners who are in an adolescent stage of their careers and have a limited perspective.
Your Partner Enjoys Your Pain
Fortunately, I have not experienced this, but I have questioned the motivations of some critiques that were unnecessarily harsh. It is a subjective call. Perhaps the critique was simply tactless, or frustrating. Anyway, if you feel that your partners are working against you, then you may need to reflect on how you are handling criticism personally. If, after personal reflection, you still feel you are under attack, then perhaps the best solution is to ignore the criticism and find a new group. They can't harm your success.
Your Partner Wants to Add Their Own Flavor
This happens all the time! I suspect it is the most frequent form of critique among Illustration groups with members of competing styles. For example, a member from your group wants you to tighten a loose painting, or in a writing group, someone might like you to add humor. It is not a good critique.
Your Partner Makes it About You
This critique ignores the story altogether and instead makes assumptions about your experience, your qualifications, or even the way you introduced yourself to the group. No worries, this is just a bad critique and you can throw it out.
The Hardest Things to Hear in a Critique:
Remember that just because they are hard to hear, does not mean they are not necessary for your growth.
What is your least favorite thing to hear during a critique?
In Picture Books, the text and illustrations will have varying degrees of responsibility.
Wordless Picture Books rely entirely on the illustrations to carry the story.
Other books, like BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures, rely entirely on text.
Most picture books marry the two extremes and use both vehicles to appeal to all the senses of the adult and child audiences.
Often, a writer creates a story with text and then publishers find an illustrator who can tell the same story with pictures.
“I don't think of myself as an illustrator. I think of myself as a cartoonist. I write the story with pictures - I don't illustrate the story with the pictures.” -Chris Ware
But the role of the illustrator is not simply to elaborate.
“When you make illustrations, you're supposed to have a subtext; you're not just communicating words - you're actually adding another story altogether.” -Peggy Rachmaninov
Storytelling is multidisciplinary.
Illustration and text are only two vehicles used to tell a story. There is also:
Exploring different vehicles to tell your story may help you flesh it out completely, or you may land on a vehicle that suits the story you are trying to tell better than others.
A Universal Message
Freedom to Tell the Story in Different Ways
All Other Storytelling Guidelines Apply
What Makes a Good Wordless Picture Book?
Learn to Find Ideas in Many Different Ways
As an illustrator, you are comfortable finding ideas through art. This is a skill that may benefit you. However, to write a winning picture book you must pull from many different sources of inspiration.
Become a Student of Writing
Once upon a time, I was a martial arts instructor. It was common to receive students from other schools or styles, some of which had completed high ranks.
Teaching these students presented a unique challenge because they were comfortable with their old ways and found the greatest success using tried and true techniques.
It is extremely difficult to teach a student new things in this position. That is why Bruce Lee said, “In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup."
“In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup.”
I provide writing and illustrating tips on this blog every Tuesday and Thursday and in my newsletter every Saturday. 100% free.
Write In Scenes
To eat an elephant, they say, you must take one bite at a time. Similarly, to write a picture book, a chapter book, or a novel, you must take one step after the other.
Chapters are an arbitrary demarcation of pauses in a story. Scenes, on the other hand, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are complete stories. Mini stories.
It is much simpler to draft, review, and revise manuscripts that have clear scene breaks. They are less overwhelming, particularly if you are writing something long.
Writers Write a Lot: Rewrite and Revise
Don’t be satisfied with your first idea, your first draft, or your first completed manuscript.
Come up with 50 ideas, write from 3 different points of view, review with a critique group 5 times or more depending on length, revise 10 times. Or don’t. What I am trying to say is, become a writer.
Keep it Simple and Brief
Everyone, especially writers, can benefit from this advice. Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use concise language. Cut out the garbage.
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Write Non-Fiction, like this:
Forgo Text Altogether, like this:
Writers can't write wordless picture books. So you are in a unique position to flex your storytelling ability through pictures. Some of my favorite picture books are wordless!
Find a Critique Group for your Manuscript
One of the steps of Deliberate Practice is input from outside sources. You need other people to help you improve.
I wish you the best on your writing journey, and I sincerely hope you succeed in finding your place as a writer and illustrator!
Right now, when you sign up for my newsletter, you will get a copy of my “Picture Book Writing Cheat Sheet”.
Shawna J. C. Tenney is an author and illustrator with a passion for picture books. Shawna graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Illustration from Brigham Young University and loves telling stories through color, composition, and whimsical characters. She is the author and illustrator of Brunhilda's Backwards Day.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Hi, my name is Cory Shaw. I am an author and illustrator of books and book covers for children.
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