Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Jenn Bower: A SCBWI-Carolinas story- Authorstrator Part IV

In this last installment in this series, Jenn Bower shares how she connected with her agent, and her advice to her fellow writers, illustrators, and "authorstrators." Next week her agent, Danielle Smith of Red Fox Literary, gives us a glimpse of why she decided to represent Jenn. (You can find links to the previous blogs here.)

CAROL How did you find your agent? 

JENN My agent found me at the 2013 SCBWI – Carolinas conference.  Bonnie Adamson, Regional Illustrator Coordinator, had the brilliant idea of including illustrator postcards in the conference faculty welcome packets.  My agent, Danielle Smith picked out mine and fellow North Carolinian, Brandon Reese, to contact.  (Brandon also signed with Danielle following the conference.) Danielle and I followed each other on Twitter and Facebook for about a month while we dialogued.  She asked me to submit a writing sample and about one month later we talked on the phone. 

You always hear how finding an agent is a lot like finding a marriage partner.  Communication is key, as well as common core values, goals, ideas about the industry, and a clear understanding of how each other works.  I was really fortunate.  I sent her one story about a painting horse which she loved.  Then she asked me to send her thumbnails to show I knew how to pace and tell the story through pictures.  I passed those interviews  and that is when she offered me representation.  She is so passionate about the industry and very particular about the product we put out for submission.  We try to talk monthly and engage almost daily via social media.  I love having her by my side.  She can handle the business of getting my books in front of the right people so I can focus on creating.

CAROL: How do you work together with Danielle now?
JENNWe try to talk on the phone at least once a month. I share what I am working on or the "next great idea." Danielle will give me her feedback on where to focus based on the market and what she is hearing editors request.

I will work on a draft and try not to submit until I know it's been through the critique rounds several times and I feel 90% confident it's close. Then Danielle and I discuss her thoughts and the feedback from my critique group. She saw me really struggling through one story and finally suggested I put it down and start something new. My current 'turban' project resulted from that suggestion. Once the manuscript is fairly firm them I start 'character auditions' and sketches.

CAROL: Do you have any advice for other writers and illustrators?

JENN: #1: Don't quit your day job. Not until you are booked out at least a year in advance with projects.  This allows you to be selective about the work you WANT and LOVE to take and put out your best product.  If you are chasing a dollar to make ends meet than the choices tend to be less palatable and I think the end result suffers.  I've seen so many peers do this and end up with work they don't want to put into their portfolio.

#2 Be patient.  We are such an instant gratification oriented society.  Slow down. Take your time. Allow your voice/style to develop before launching it out into the world. Make certain it is the image you truly want to portray. I've learned this with the illustration side, the hard way.  I rushed some pieces and then had to go back and re-work them once the dust settled.  I am still learning this lesson on the writing side.  Something magical happens when you allow work to marinate a bit.

#3 Be involved. Get involved in your local SCBWI chapter.  Go to conferences, not to be discovered, but to absorb and learn.  Be involved in critique groups.  It's amazing how much you'll grow and discover through the editorial process.

#4 Be persistent. This industry is full of high/low moments.  Learn to ride the the sweet spot of the wake so you don't get beaten around so much.  Creativity is a process and not always linear.  Find ways to unwind - I knit, exercise, ride horses, do yoga and get myself unstuck often in those moments when I'm not staring at a blinking cursor on a screen.  Set achievable goals for yourself and don't overload your plate.

#5 Write a mission and vision statement for your career.  I did this in 2012 and it helped me stay focused on the tasks I needed to accomplish to complete my mission.  It was one of the biggest steps I took in moving my career forward.  I taped it up in my studio.

CAROL: Can you tell us about your book out on submission?

JENN: I am sworn to secrecy but I can say it is a book I love.  It is a story about doing what you love, at whatever the cost and coming out a winner in the end.  It’s told from the perspective of a horse who loves to paint.  I’m excited because I don’t really know of another story out there like it.

CAROL: Thank you, Jenn, for sharing your talent and advice with other writers and illustrators. I can't wait to announce, "You heard it here first," when you sign your first publishing contract! 


Jenn has promised to share her "character audition" sketches for her current work-in-progress. Since I am a part of Jenn's critique group, I can tell you that her story and accompanying illustrations will be a winner.

Meanwhile, check out Jenn's customized illustration for the current issue of Talking Story. Joyce Hostetter and I were delighted with how she cleverly illustrated the theme of "Technology and Brain Health." 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jenn Bower: An Artist's Toolbox- "Authorstrator" Part III

If you have just arrived to this series of posts by Jenn Bower, I hope you'll go back and read Part I  in which Jenn shared how she came to be an "authorstrator," and Part II "Process Makes Perfect," when she discussed her creative process. 

CAROL Tell us a little about your digital tools. Why do you draw digitally? What makes your illustrations different than others who illustrate digitally?

JENN I draw analog (paper, pencil, and eraser) but I paint digitally with Photoshop and an inexpensive Wacom Bambo digital tablet. Here I am adding leaves to a branch:

There always seems to be a misnomer that digital painters don't really paint. People often think the computer does the painting. It is merely a different medium, like using a word processor vs. pencil and paper for writing. When someone says watercolor or colored pencil most of us have an immediate image of what using those tools looks like. In the video above, my hand still controls the brush selection, colors and brush strokes.

A number of years ago I was diagnosed with pretty debilitating anxiety. OCD is a wonderful by-product.  Until I purchased my computer and tablet most of my drawings only lived on as sketches.  I was paralyzed by the mess paints made; I couldn’t stand the clean-up involved and hated waiting for paint to dry.  In college I worked with inks, markers and colored pencils but that was no longer my stylistic vision.  My work is heavily influenced by the Mid Century Modernists – Mary Blair, Mel Crawford, the Provensens, JP Miller, Fiep Westendorp, Charlie Harper, and Aurelius Battaglia.  They were all about graphic shapes, movement and flat color.  They were the illustrators I loved as a child; thus they reminded me of childhood.

I set out learning how to create my style digitally.  Ironically, I use very little of the available tools in Photoshop.  I truly treat the software like a paper canvas.  You have the ability to create an infinite number of independent painting layers, like overlapping sheets of tracing paper, within the program.  I try to limit my layers to roughly three:  foreground, middle ground, background.  I don’t vector the image and I rarely use the outline masking tool because I want kids to see the brush strokes and wobbly lines that give the image character.  I call them happy mistakes.  The tablet has a stylus which functions like a paintbrush.  I invested in some fantastic brush sets created by Kyle Webster which look like natural watercolor, gouache, and dry brush media. I’ve limited my brush selection to about 15-20 tools which I use all the time.

CAROL It seems as if promotion is part of every author and illustrator's toolbox. How do you promote yourself? 

JENN Calmly and quietly?  I have a website with a blog which I try to update monthly.  I am pretty active on social media, namely Twitter.  It works great for the short spurts of time I have to invest in daily networking.  Many publishing houses, editors, art directors, other writers and illustrators have some sort of presence there and it is devoid of the tooth gnashing I experience on Facebook.  Facebook feels more intimate so people tend to be a little more misbehaved.  You can get a pretty good sense of personalities on social media.  

I know my agent, Danielle Smith, watches closely and has admittedly made decisions not to represent people based on their Twitter/Facebook presence.  Ultimately people want to work with someone they feel they know and like.  Social media allows those relationships to develop across continents; these are opportunities truly unique to this generation.  I am active in the SCBWI-Carolinas region which is fantastic for promotion, education, networking, and morale support.  Finally, I do try to send out a quarterly postcard to a select mailing list of about fifty editors and art directors. I am pretty specific about the list based on imprints I’ve researched where I feel my illustration style would fit. 
Click here for a blog on Jenn's postcard process. 

Next week, Jenn wraps up this series of posts by sharing how she found her agent and gives advice to writers, illustrators, and other "authorstrators".

Monday, July 7, 2014

Jenn Bower: Process Makes Perfect-- "Authorstrator" Part II

In last week's blog, I promised a glimpse into Jenn Bower's artistic process. True to my word, Jenn takes us inside her uber-creative brain.

CAROL: Once you have an idea, what's your next step? How many sketches do you do before you know if an idea is working or not? Do you do the sketches digitally? Do you write the text first or draw the images first?

JENN: My process is still evolving.  99% percent of the time I’ve no clue what I am doing.  I simply have this urge to do something!  It’s unbearable if I don’t.  I generate many of my ideas through Tara Lazar’s November PiBoIdMo, as I mentioned last week.  I also like using Scholastic’s Story Starter’s website. 

When I am extremely lucky I’ll have a light bulb moment, typically while walking the dog.  Sometimes an idea will spring forth from a sketch especially if I find myself sketching the same character.  The biggest key to a successful idea is making sure it’s a person, place, thing, idea that you love.  I love nature, I love horses, dogs, cats, cows, frogs and birds, I love quirky and slightly subversive kids, I love little towns, barn, and farms.  When you love deeply you know intimately and I believe that translates to the words you write and the pictures you draw.  I will likely never write about monsters, clowns, snakes or life in the big, big city.  I’ve no desire to have a long-term relationship with those characters.

Much of my process depends on my mood and energy level.  As a single parent working ‘normal’ 8-5 hours, some days I may only have 20 minutes to an hour to work on my craft.    I am a very linear thinker and process most of my information internally before I ever commit to anything on paper.  It drives most people I know crazy.  I know an idea is worth developing if I clearly see the characters and images in my head and I can sense the story arc. My personality needs clear direction in order to move forward.  The book out on submission right now with my agent, Danielle SmithRed Fox Literary, was that way.  It started with a PiBoIdMo 2012 idea. Then a single sketch.  It percolated in my synapses for another year before I grabbed a legal pad and began writing the story out long hand.

Once I have the bones of the story I then move to my laptop and begin the arduous revision journey.  Namely, cutting down the word count.  Then it goes to my agent for her thumbs-up before I move to thumbnail sketches.  During this part of the process I will pretty quickly pick up any flaws in the pacing or story-arc, so the manuscript keeps evolving.  All my sketches are analog – pencil to paper.  The number of sketches I do often depends on how well formed the images are in my mind.  Some pages I see clearly.  Others are literally blanks so I will do a lot of loose, sloppy copy, gesture drawing to shake out the image.  

I also employ an old Interior Design tactic: tracing paper.

This allows me to layer elements on a sketch and move things around.  I love this phase.  The story really comes to life with the pictures.  I know the image is right when there is magic on the page and I feel this tremendous sense of gratitude. I am pretty spiritual so if I find myself saying, “YES! Thank you God.” then I know I’ve gotten it right.  I also check for action, reaction, and interaction occurring on the page.

CAROL How do you know when to take an idea all the way to a book?

JENN Once I’ve completed all the sketches and firmed up the manuscript I scan everything into Photoshop and lay in the text.  Hopefully I’ve allotted room for the words in my images and allowed for white space and some quiet pages.  All sketches are then shared with Danielle for her review, comments, edit requests and approval.  She typically shares with me which sketches she’d like to see in color comps for the Picture Book Dummy.  Then I begin the painting phase.  For my current submission we went through about five rounds of color edits before she said we were ready to submit.

Join us next week when Jenn discusses and demonstrates the digital tools she uses to paint these wonderful drawings!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Introducing Jenn Bower, "Authorstrator": Part I

Being a member of a SCBWI critique group has lots of advantages: I receive feedback about my manuscript and have the opportunity to learn more about writing by critiquing others. I also meet wonderful writers who are serious about honing their craft and getting published. And every once in awhile, skilled illustrators wander into our group and I'm astonished at their work. Since I can barely draw a stick figure, I'm always in awe of their abilities to tell stories through art and to deepen a story's impact through images.

Jenn Bower is new to the Charlotte SCBWI critique group, but not new to the creative arts. When she started talking about how she illustrates digitally, I begged her to educate me--and my readers--on how this is done. She agreed to fit me into her busy schedule and answer several questions.

Jenn also introduced me to the idea of "Authorstrator"--writers who are also illustrators. I think you will agree that the next four blog posts demonstrate her skills as both. Take it away, Jenn!

CAROL: Tell us a little about yourself and why you consider yourself to be an "authorstrator”.

From "Bo Peep Gets a Makeover"

JENN: As a kid, I dreamed of being a model, actor, and architect.  I loved telling stories with laughable characters and regaled my relatives with ‘Myrtle the Turtle’ and ‘Chubby’ imitations.  I always made things: Barbie clothes, Barbie homes out of wood blocks, sewing and knitting projects, homemade cards.  I also wrote, produced, directed, costumed, set designed, and stared in some form of homespun Holiday two-man pageant, with my younger sister, or performed in all the school plays.  I knew, since the First Grade when I won the Great Pumpkin Decorating Contest, I was born to create.  

A bit of a late bloomer with a horrible sense of direction, I attended UNC-Chapel Hill for Journalism & Advertising and then earned my BFA-Interior Design degree from Winthrop University.  Too clumsy to be a model, too camera shy to be an actress and lacking any affinity for load bearing wall calculations
, I then promptly went to work in the insurance, luxury retail, and investment holding industries.  I hated my life and was insanely jealous of my younger sister who was pursuing her second degree in Children’s Illustration.

The birth of my daughter made me examine the shape of my own life as I was molding hers.  What examples did I want to set?  I always dreamed as a child but fear addled the pursuit.  In 2001 I enrolled in writing for children literature course but found my writing to
be acerbic and serious.  I needed to peel back layers of adulthood so from 2008-2010 I wrote and published poems and short stories under a pseudonym.  There was a fantastic online community at the time called URBIS.  I connected with a talented group of writers who really challenged my writing.

In 2010 while cleaning out a closet I unearthed my old college art bin.  As I tested decades old markers and pens for life, I doodled a character and then posted a picture on Facebook.  It was the most commented on and ‘liked’ post of the year.  The match was struck and I couldn’t stop drawing again.  I tend to work in extremes so when the drawing rocketed the writing abruptly halted.
From "Kidlitart Process Post"
In 2011 I joined SCBWI, primarily as an illustrator.  At the 2012 Regional Carolinas conference an editor said something that stuck with me: “You illustrators need to step up your game and learn to write as well.”  Frankly, it pissed me off.  I wondered why this individual didn’t toss down the same white glove to writers.  It nagged at me for a year.  

I participated in PiBoIdMo that November and generated a month’s worth of picture book ideas.  They hibernated in a Moleskein pocket sketchbook. Here is a short video showing me paging through a similar notebook:

At the 2013 conference I participated in the Illustrator’s Intensive led by Dan Yaccarino and his Art Director, Patty Ann Harris from Little Brown Books for Young Readers.  They gave us an actual working manuscript and tasked us to develop characters based on the story.  Something clicked during the process and I knew I was a storyteller that had to write and illustrate my own stories.  The remainder of the conference I sat in on every breakout session related to the craft of picture book writing. 
Join us next week when Jenn shares her creative process!

Until then, here is Jenn's Facebook profile picture. You can see this lady is someone special!
Jenn getting kisses from Trinity,
her 18 month old, 82lb Doberman rescue.