Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Are Kids More Creative Than Adults, or Where Do Ideas Come From?

I recently read a quote that someone posted associating creativity with childhood, implying that children are more creative than adults and that to sustain that creativity, you have to be in touch with that part of you that's a child. I think this is only partially true. Playing and being inventive in play comes naturally to children, not simply because they're children, but because they're people.

Play is encouraged in young children, but after they reach a certain age, they're meant to abandon play, outside of organized games. All kids draw, but there's an age, around eight or nine, when those with a talent for it are recognized, and those who don't have the same aptitude are discouraged. Drawings young children make aren't judged, or at least, they're judged considerably less. Drawing is considered a function of being a kid. But when they get older judgement seeps in, when they're introduced to the mystery of what is a good drawing, versus what is a bad drawing, when there are "artists" and "non-artists" kids that can and kids that can't.

The assumption is that children need to play, that play is critical, but that when they grow older, it's no longer necessary, and that an integral part of growing up is abandoning the part of your imagination that allows you to be inventive. To pretend. But an ability to be inventive has nothing to do with anything childlike. If anything, our potential to be inventive, to engage in imaginative play increases as we grow intellectually.  So maturity is the reason why people have greater ability to write and draw and make things--it's not only skill, but our capacity that increases as we grow older. It's not so much being in touch with your inner child, but  an ability to subvert the part of society that says you can't. Of course some people are more encouraged than others, but being discouraged from play is an integral part of adulthood, and there are acceptable and unacceptable forms of play even for the "artists", the people who are supposed to be good at it.

 It's in  the years between the age of eight or nine, to the time when we become teenagers, when we're first told that we can't, or that we're not good enough, or that it's not practical. We're discouraged so much, that for most adults, the act of picking up a pencil and drawing a picture is so foreign, that it simply doesn't occur to them to try. The last time they did it for the sake of it, they were too young to remember. But it's not about being a kid. It has nothing to do with being a kid. It's about what society tells us we can, and can't be. Everyone has ideas, but there's a mechanism in most people's heads that stops an idea before it has a chance to happen, that compares that idea to every other idea they've encountered and measures it to be worthy or not, usually with the assumption that it couldn't possibly be. It's an act so unconscious, that people often think they don't have any ideas, when it's only that they've been conditioned not to allow themselves to have them.

Then there's that question that's so common its become a joke, that so many artists are asked,"where do you get your ideas?"  The assumption is that it's an impossible question, that some people have ideas and some people don't, and that's just the way things are, but I don't think it's quite that simple. What I think people are really asking is, "Where are my ideas? Why is it so easy for you, and not for me?" which is actually a pretty good question. I  don't know that there's a rational answer, but at least part of the answer is that somewhere, someone in your life said, "you can't."So how can you change that? Play. Play anyway and anywhere you can. You might be a little rusty, but you'll get better if you practice, and even better when you no longer have to try, when it becomes what it always should have been--simply a function of being a person. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Does the Convention of the "Elevator Pitch" Truly Serve the Book Industry?

In the publishing industry there's something called "the elevator pitch." The idea is that you can sell your story in a few compelling sentences, no more than it would take you to recite on an elevator ride. But aren't their books that defy description, that you can't truly do justice to in a pitch, or one page query? Is a book truly unsalable if you can't sum it up in a sentence?

What would be the elevator pitch for a book like the Catcher in the Rye?

This is from the Cliff's Notes summary:

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield recounts the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a private school. After a fight with his roommate, Stradlater, Holden leaves school two days early to explore New York before returning home, interacting with teachers, prostitutes, nuns, an old girlfriend, and his sister along the way. J.D. Salinger's classic The Catcher in the Rye illustrates a teenager's dramatic struggle against death and growing up.

Here's the Amazon description:

"Anyone who has read J. D. Salinger's New Yorker stories - particularly A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, The Laughing Man, and For Esme - With Love and Squalor, will not be surprised by the fact that his first novel is full of children. The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children's voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden's voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep."

I'm sure someone else more skilled could do a better summary of the book, but these are pretty useless. Aside from the author's reputation, neither make the book sound particularly appealing. I doubt either description would sell the book to a publisher or agent as a young adult novel today.

Where Did Elevator Pitches Come From? 

My own theory, is that elevator pitches are a relatively new convention borrowed from the film industry. After films like The Exorcist and Jaws, the blockbuster was born, and films that would have otherwise been allowed months to find an audience, were judged on the basis of ticket sales in the first week. High concept movies that could be easily described in a sentence became the focus. This practice continues to this day. At some point the publishing industry picked up on this practice, and incorporated it into their own marketing practices.

It might be surprising for many people to learn that the incredibly popular picture book, Where The Wild Things Are wasn't an instant success. Not until it was discovered by kids in libraries did it become popular. I doubt a book like Where The Wild Things Are by an unknown author today would fair well with publishers. To be fair, even then, Sendak had established quite a reputation. The difficulty of selling a a book not easily summed up or categorized is nothing new--the number of rejections that now hugely successful books have received is something often touted as an ironic aspect of their success.

Book publishers have to sell books. There's no getting around it--a high concept book, or a book that features a popular subject has a better shot of making immediate sales. This is what keeps publishers in business. I realize there are passionate editors who work hard to get good books in print, and that sometimes this is an uphill battle. But books do get discovered by readers. Libraries are still an excellent tool for books that didn't immediately find an audience, and those books will eventually sell. Since the book publishing industry has been struggling for many years, fewer editors are responsible for more books, and are unable to do the same job they used to. So editors have increasingly relied on high concepts and stories that can be quickly and compellingly summarized. But are we missing out on these truly great books?

The Role of Publishers In The World of E-Books and Print-On-Demand

Is print-on-demand and e-book self publishing going to be the new way that these kinds of books find an audience?  The only problem is, when everyone can publish a book, it becomes even more difficult to find those great books. Publishers do act as a kind of jury process, weeding out amateurish and just plain awful writing to find the good stuff. The role of editor is also still an important one. Many great books are collaborations with insightful and knowledgable editors. Self-publishing cuts out that often very important editorial process. There is a movement of online publishers out there run by editors with experience in the conventional publishing world, but it's still easier for a conventionally published book to get seen than a book by an online publisher. There are a few success stories that involve self-publishing or online publishing, but they're the exception, not the rule.

 I do think there's a role for publishers to play in the digital publishing world. It's going to be interesting to see how the role of publishers evolves. The one thing that digital publishing and print-on-demand publishing offers is low risk. When you can publish a book virtually, or print them individually, there's little initial investment. The main cost becomes promotion. Lately promotion has fallen more upon authors, who are often asked to produce their own video trailers and book their own signings, and are no longer supported by publishers in the same way that they used to be. In a new digital publishing world, promotion may be, once again, the responsibility of publishers, and authors will have more time to do what they do best, write. So with lower initial cost, maybe editors won't have the burden of so many titles, so they can do what they do best: edit. And maybe, just maybe, the importance of the elevator pitch won't be so dominant.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pirate Drawing

A pirate I won't end up using for my pirate series.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Favorite Model

Usually when I draw figures I draw on a number of sources. I never find exactly the pose I need, but use a number of photos to get what I'm after. But every once in a while, I'll need an adult male, and so I prop up my camera, set the timer and pose. These are for a pirate piece I'm working on. 

This first guy has some unpirate-like slacks, but his legs will mostly be cropped out. Those are Maori tattoos on his face, since I was thinking Queequeg from Moby Dick. I like the idea of pirates that pick up crew from allover the world with different ethnicities, but I have no idea what real pirates from this era--I guess the 18th and early 19th century?--were like, outside of Treasure Island, which is what I listened to on audio while I drew these.

What I love about the timer on my camera is that I can pose as unselfconsciously as possible, and be as hammy an actor as I need to be. Of course these photos are pretty awful, and the lighting is pretty bad. Sometimes I spend a little more time working to get better shadows, but all I really needed for these background figures were the poses.  I've got plenty of time to take as many photos as I need until I can get just the pose I want. When I translate these poses into pirates, I feel like I lose a little, and gain a little--sometimes I don't quite capture a tilt of the head or a shrug of the shoulders, but in reinterpreting my poses as the characters, I want to change their builds and features and generally make them pirates and not a bunch of people that look like me. It's easy to get into the trap of relying on the photos so much that you're simply trying emulate the photo, and that's when things start to look stiff and inanimate. Well, for me anyway. 

Monday, January 09, 2012

A Great Book Will Always Remain a Great Book: Why Your Kid Will Never Outgrow Picture Books

Your Early Reader Needs Picture Books, Even if You Think They've Outgrown Them

There is an increasing trend to get kids into reading chapter books as early as possible. The publishing industry has responded to this trend by making picture books less sophisticated and with fewer words than they had in the past. I think this is a mistake. Picture books are a pivotal and significant part of a kid's growth and development as a reader. Kids need to be able to read picture books as long as they have a desire to. 

I recently came across a post on a blog called the "Homeschool Classroom" that discussed this issue, expressing that their child, at four, had reached a "reading wall." Here's the original post.

And here's a slightly edited version of my response:

Your boy is four years old. Picture books are OK. I repeat: picture books are OK. There are plenty of challenging picture books for even the most advanced reader. Try William Steig. Try William Joyce. Or Chris Van Allsberg. Yes, there are less words per page. But you'd be surprised--the vocabulary is not necessarily less sophisticated. The stories are often challenging and engaging. Compelling an early reader to read books he's not that interested in is not going to make them a better reader in the future. Let him choose his own books, even if they are what you consider to be below his reading level. Picture books are a very important and critical part of a kids early development as a reader. At four he needs picture books.

There are also some very excellent lavishly illustrated storybooks in the slimmer, picture book format. And no matter what the age level, I don't think it helps to make reading a compulsory act. Give him books that he likes and he will seek them out. Read him books that are maybe a little more sophisticated but that engage him--books that he may not be able to read on his own but that he can enjoy, like Doctor Dolittle or Peter Pan. These are nighttime reading. Bedtime stories. And read him his favorites--even if they're below his reading level--over and over again if that's what he wants. That's how you change a reluctant reader into an enthusiastic one!

I Missed My Picture Books

When I was eight years old, I moved from my home in Pennsylvania to California with my mother and brother. And I left behind my picture books. I had a wonderful collection of some of fantastic picture books, Babar, Maurice Sendak, Steig, classic fairytales illustrated by Dulac and some of the great illustrators of the past. At eight, I saw these as "baby books" and my mother asked if it was OK for my grandmother to sell them. I would get to keep the money. She sold the lot for $50, and my mother started a bank account for me. At the time, I thought this was a great idea. It wasn't long before I figured out what I'd done.

We no longer had any books in my house that I wanted to read. We had my older brother's Beverly Cleary and Judy Bloom books. I tried to read Ramona the Great which was supposed to be written for my age group, but I found it totally unsatisfying. I had always considered myself an enthusiastic reader, prided myself on my interest in reading, but there was nothing I wanted to read. Then I discovered comic books.

Comic books were picture books that I could buy myself. I could seek them out on my own, and buy them with my own money. At the time, the only thing I checked out from the library were hardbound collections of comics, like The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and Origins of Marvel Comics and Flash Gordon. My parents thought: at least I was reading, but I think these comics were as sophisticated as any chapter book or young adult book. You see: when I was a kid, I liked fantasy, but there wasn't a Harry Potter. We had Roald Dahl, and later I'd discover Daniel Pinkwater, and John Dennis Fitzgerald's The Great Brain (not fantasy, but no less a great series). I loved a Wrinkle in Time, but didn't read it till much later. But we simply didn't have the wealth of young adult books, of truly engaging young adult books that we have now. Yes, there are too many vampire books, and the fantasy genre dominates, but they are books that kids want to read. And there are so many that are well written, and that have compelling characters, and that go so far beyond the The Hardy Boys and The Babysitter's Club in the sophistication of their content. But there has to be a transition point. Even when a kid's reading level is high enough for them to read a chapter book, or  even a young adult book, picture books can still be important. 

A Great Book Will Always Remain a Great Book

Maybe I was supposed to be too old for picture books, but I never stopped loving them. And I'm positive that even at eight, or nine, or even older, I would have still read them over and over, even if they were "baby books." These were, and remain important books for me. A great book is a great book, and if it's a truly great book, no matter how few words it has, no matter what age it was intended for, it should continue to be a great book, and kids shouldn't be compelled to abandon them.