My latest post on Writer Unboxed looks at my love of graphic novels/comic books (or BD, as we call them in French), and how I began creating my own. Hope you enjoy–and consider posting comments of your own on the Writer Unboxed site!
My latest post on Writer Unboxed looks at my love of graphic novels/comic books (or BD, as we call them in French), and how I began creating my own. Hope you enjoy–and consider posting comments of your own on the Writer Unboxed site!
A lovely surprise in my email the other day: Margrete Lamond, the wonderful publisher at Dirt Lane Press, sent me the first two colour spreads for The Snowman’s Wish, my book with the extraordinary Iranian Australian illustrator Ronak Taher, which is to be published by Dirt Lane in 2020. I am so thrilled with Ronak’s illustrations: they are absolutely glorious, bursting with colour, character and tenderness. As Margrete put it so well, the book will: ‘glow like an opal, its colours and decorative motifs a contemporary expression of traditional Persian art.’
The story is very special to me, having come out of a dream, and an image of a snowman standing under pine trees, with the first words themselves of the text strangely and wondrously on my lips as I awoke: The snowman was new to the world/and the world was new to him…Spine tingling, I rushed to my desk then and scribbled the whole thing down, feeling the gentle, joyful and melancholy magic of it rush through my storytelling veins, and knowing I had something pretty special there. Which seemed indeed to be the case because both my agent Margaret Connolly and then Margrete, when we sent it to her, loved it at once. And when Margrete sent it to Ronak to consider illustrating, she loved it too. It is just so exciting to see the progress on it, and the gorgeous visual world that Ronak is creating, and I’m delighted to be able to share these first two spreads with you.
Today is the official publication date of my picture book with Ruth Waters, There’s A Tiger Out There(Little Hare) and to celebrate Ruth and I have written pieces on the creation of the book. Enjoy!
Creation of the text, by Sophie Masson
There’s a Tiger Out There began in a dream. In the dream, I was in my house, looking out at the garden, when I glimpsed her: silent stripes gliding through our garden, yellow eyes shining. And with a grip of the heart that was half thrill and half fear, I knew there was a tiger out there and that if I went out—who knew what would happen? Now, it’s not an uncommon occurrence for me to have big cats—lions and tigers, especially—suddenly appear in my dreams, but in this case, it felt different. It felt like this tiger was different, her eyes fixed on me, and when I woke up, I knew why. It was because she wanted to be in a story!
So I began work on transposing her from the realm of dream to the realm of imagination. The first words came quickly, and the first draft was quite simple—just pretty much recounting that dream glimpse and that mix of feelings on seeing her savage, elemental splendour in the midst of our humble familiar garden. ‘There’s a tiger watching me with eyes as bright as sunrise/’ I wrote, ‘There’s a tiger sleek as shadow/stripes of midnight on her fur.’ After I showed the text to my agent Margaret Connolly, who loved it and sent it to Margrete Lamond, who was then the publisher at Little Hare and also loved it, that first draft went through many changes, in collaboration first with Margrete and then, when she left, with Alyson O’Brien, who also loved it and helped me bring the text to its final form. Early on, the draft had transformed from a simple ‘I’ eye-view to the point of view of two siblings, one older and bolder, one younger and more timid, who see a tiger ‘out there’ and react in their different ways—with a twist at the end, of course! It was a story, I realised, about sibling relations, about imagination, about love and adventure and mystery—and the thrill of a good scare!
When I first saw Ruth Waters’ gorgeous collage images, I was so excited! She had completely understood the spirit of my text and created a richly-imagined, warm and distinctive visual world, where the tiger as much as the siblings was completely at home. It was as if that was how I had always seen the world of my story: not only a perfect fit, but extending and expanding it in the most satisfying way.
And of course I just adore the finished book, with Hannah Janzen’s gorgeous design!
Creation of the illustrations, by Ruth Waters
I remember the day I received the email from Alyson from Little Hare Books. I had to re-read it several times. You want me to illustrate a picture book? Me? I had previously written and illustrated my own story but had been waiting for the opportunity to work on someone else’s tale. That said, I opened the manuscript with some trepidation – what if I can’t connect with the story? I needn’t have worried. As I read each line, I instantly pictured who the characters were, how they looked and what kind of personality they had. A little bit bossy, know-it-all, older sister. A younger brother who adores and does anything she tells him.
The first stage of the making process was to create a series of character sketches in pencil. Since I work in collage, I also created a collage version to give Alyson a better idea of how they would finally look. I sent these off and waited for her comments. We went back and forth until we were both happy.
The next stage was to figure out how the text should be split across 32-or-so pages and come up with a rough idea of how each page would look. I had already made the decision that the ‘real’ tiger should only appear on the last double page spread. This way, not only the children in the story but the reader would not be entirely sure whether there really is a tiger. Another idea was to give the little boy a cuddly toy tiger – this would act as a visual tool to help the reader conjure up the idea that there is a tiger out there. Another idea, inspired by the line ‘cross my heart’ – which appears throughout the story – was to place a hidden heart-shape on every page. Sometimes the heart shape is made from a blade of grass or appears as a ripple in the water. I also spent quite a bit of time making sure there was enough variety in terms of perspectives – wide shots verses close-up, double page spreads verses one page of illustration. At this point I also decided on the colour palette – I decided we should go bright – to match the vibrant orange of the tiger.
Storyboard and colour palette
The storyboard was then sent to Little Hare and over a few weeks we made little tweaks. Once I got the thumbs up – I made the final sketches to scale and then got to work prepping the paper.
Final sketch and prepping the paper!
To create the collages, I first roll acrylic paint on to a variety of textured paper. Then, working with the final sketches, I trace, cut and stick! All of my illustrations are made entirely by hand. It is labour intensive but I much prefer it to using a computer. The other plus about collage is it’s flexibility as I can keep moving the pieces around until I am happy and, only then, glue them down.
Every time I finished a double page spread, I would scan and send it to Little Hare for their thoughts. To me this proved to be an efficient way of working as it allowed me to make tweaks as I went along, rather making lots of changes at the end – when time is tight.
Watch videos of the making process:
Overall the entire project took about 3-4 months. Much quicker than usual due to my own time constraints (normally I would allocate 6 months). I then packaged it all up and hand delivered it to Little Hare’s production office!
The whole project was a joy to work on from start to finish. And I learnt so much along the way.
Today is the official publication day of On My Way, my picture book with Simon Howe(Scholastic Australia), and to celebrate Simon and I have written about what it was like to create the world of the book. Enjoy!
Creating the text, by Sophie Masson
It was just an ordinary drive to town, on an ordinary day. I was in the car when the first line of On My Way unexpectedly popped into my head for no apparent reason and as soon as it did I could hear this little voice excitedly telling ‘Mumma’ all the extraordinary things that could be seen on the way to school and the shops and so on: rather like my own kids used to do when they were small!
Normally, when I think of a good idea for a story, I put it down in my notebook–but I was driving, and couldn’t stop. Yet the little voice was so insistent on telling the story RIGHT NOW I knew I couldn’t wait either 😀
So all along the 15 kms between home and our local town, I was trying out lines aloud to myself, repeating them over and over so they’d stick in my head until I could write them down and start working on them properly!
Right from that unexpected start, this has been such a fun text to work on, as the child tells what seem to be wilder and wilder stories about more and more unusual things and yet the patient, busy mother doesn’t appear to be surprised by any of it… Even in the car, repeating those first few lines, I knew there would be a big twist–and that was such an enjoyable thing to create!
I was so delighted when I first saw Simon’s storyboard and then as time went on viewed more developments of the magical visual world he’d created for my characters. And I just loved the clever and wonderful way in which he’d revealed the twist. That excited little voice I’d first heard on a boringly ordinary drive to town, had really come to life and that was just so exciting!
The manuscript for On My Way was an invitation to participate in a story far more than many book texts. The writing gave me a relationship between two characters, but left who they are, where they are and what they’re doing entirely up to me. The world of the story could have been a thousand things – a thrilling proposition for an illustrator.
Rather than getting bogged down in the possibilities of the world, I came to a decision fairly quickly. The mother’s dialogue in the text is warm, but also dismissive. I imagined her preoccupied with an activity and only half-listening to her child, who in turn is only half-helping, and mostly getting in the way. I was gardening quite a bit at the time, and thought I’d have the mother in the story doing the same. So I had my setting – a garden. I wanted the book to be full of warm greens, so this environment was perfect. It also allowed me to easily place hints to the final twist!
Like an increasing number of book illustrators, I chose to create everything digitally, using Photoshop and a Wacom Cintiq display. The textures and subtleties available to digital artists today are astounding, and while you can usually still spot the digital from the traditional, it’s certainly becoming harder. Regarding process, I’m a drawer rather than a painter, so I almost always start with lines. I use two brushes that mimic the look of pencil, and scratch out the picture fairly roughly. When refining the lines, I like to leave some of that roughness.
I then use a brush that mimics the look of watercolour, and I build up the colours over several passes. The last step is to use a pencil brushed again to add highlights where needed. That all sounds very traditional, but the benefit of digital is that it’s all done in layers, and it’s very easy to correct and adjust things at any stage of the process.
There was a little back and forth with the publisher over some details, but the original vision remained largely unchanged from the first roughs, through a second draft and finally into the finished art. After all the pages were finished, the publication was delayed for a significant amount of time. Somewhere along the way, I decided to tweak some of the artwork. Then things got a bit out of control and I ended up re-drawing and colouring the entire book! I should really have left it alone, but I was happy with the small improvements I made.
It was a thoroughly pleasurable book to illustrate, and I’m grateful to both Sophie and Scholastic for trusting me to wrap a world of my own around such a clever and funny piece of writing.
Here’s the blurb:
On my way to school, Mumma, guess what I saw? A pig chasing a wig! A goat rowing a boat!
A delightful story about all the extraordinary things you can see on your travels.
I jut loved creating this fun story, and adore Simon’s magical illustrations!
Full cover below.
Today I thought I’d republish an updated piece that I originally wrote for a presentation a couple of years ago, and which focusses on my love of folk and fairy tales, as a child reader, an adult writer, and a new small publisher!
Small but Beautiful: The Myriad Possibilities of Folk and Fairy Tale
By Sophie Masson
Three is a powerful number in fairy tale and folklore. And so in this piece I’m using it as a motif, to speak to you in three guises: as a young reader, an adult writer and a new publisher.
Once upon a time…
I dearly loved fairy and folk tales as a child. I was very lucky in that my very first literary mentors were oral, in fact, the very tradition fairy tale comes from: for I was told stories from a very early age. First by my paternal grandmother in Toulouse: as a baby, after I got very sick in Indonesia, where I was born and my parents were working, my parents took me back to France and left me with Mamizou(Marie-Louise), my glamorous, kind grandmother, and my two lovely, and lively, aunts, dark-haired Betty and blond Genevieve. In that fairytale setting of the ancient city of Toulouse, surrounded by stories held in its very stones, I was nurtured on tales of fairies and witches, monsters and heroes, tricksters and innocents. The tales of Perrault and those of Grimm jostled those from local folklore and those from far away: from the beginning, fairy and folk tales from around the world featured in my imagination. Then, after I’d left my grandmother’s home at five years old, with my parents and siblings and we arrived in Australia, the fairy tale tradition continued, for we had so many illustrated books based around tales from across the world, and my father used to make some up for us too, and give his own(sometimes scary!) retellings of famous ones. Our mother also took us to see Disney animations such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and I still love those Disney films–they are made with such delicate, sparkling artistry, they are little gems in themselves. But of course, given my deep background in the original fairy tale, they were never the be-all and end-all for me, just another way of entering into that enchanted world. And the very first book I read by myself in English, at the age of six or so, was a beautifully illustrated Little Golden Book called The Blue Book of Fairy Tales, which included Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, and Toads and Diamonds. I found a copy of that book in a garage sale a few years ago—and as soon as I clapped eyes on it, I was instantly transported back to that childhood reading experience! I knew the stories already, having heard them; but to decipher them for myself, in a language that wasn’t my native tongue, added an extra dimension of magic…Later still, I read more collections of fairy and folk tales from all over the world, both in English and French, in gorgeous illustrated editions. I couldn’t get enough of those sorts of stories. They were both consolation and escape; helped me to disappear into enchanted realms when frequent family melodramas made life difficult and painful; but also helped me to make sense of the world on my return. I loved myth and legend too, but in a different way.
Fairy and folk tales are less grand than myth, and less ‘serious’ than legend, but they are, in a way, more approachable. More human. And yet more magical. More geared towards not the great ones of this world, but the little people. They privilege the world of the village, the cottage, the everyday, transformed by luck, wit, kindness, courage…Most of all, they offer possibility: of escape, of justice, of hope. And of course of adventure. People say sometimes that it’s a pity fairy and folk tales are ‘only’ seen these days as suitable for children. While I understand what they mean, I think that it’s a patronising mistake to imply that something ‘only’ for children has no intrinsic value, in itself. Children understand folk and fairy tales, instinctively, without analysis. They understand without articulating it what it is that is so rich and nourishing in these ancient tales. Going from light to dark and all shades in between, managing all emotions from love to hatred, joy to sorrow, dread to excitement, laughter to grief, they are humble yet powerful, full of meaning yet full of adventure, and all in one concise and distilled package, for the tight framework of folk and fairy tale allows the imagination to run free. They also impart extraordinary and complex truths about human life and human nature in ways that are much more potent than if they were expressed baldly. You understand them with your subconscious, with your imagination, well before you are able to articulate them.
Turning the page, to adulthood…
I’ve never lost that love, that instinctive attraction to fairy tales–to me they are both intoxicating and refreshing, they lodge in your bones and your blood and in your dreams. And for a novelist, they are just a gift! As a writer, I love taking fairy tales and myths from around the world and playing around with them, re-inventing them to create fresh and lively new stories which whilst staying true to their essential core. I’ve explored quite a few fairy tales in my books: Aschenputtel(German form of Cinderella) in Moonlight and Ashes; The Scarlet Flower(Russian form of Beauty and the Beast) in Scarlet in the Snow; Rapunzel in The Crystal Heart; Snow White in Hunter’s Moon; Sleeping Beauty in Clementine; Puss in Boots in Carabas; (Tattercoats(English version of Cinderella) in Cold Iron; Breton fairy tales and the Arthurian fairytale of Dame Ragnell in In Hollow Lands; Celtic stories of underwater realms in The Green Prince; and the Russian story, the Tale of Prince Ivan and the firebird in my novel, The Firebird, as well as the Arabian Nights in my four-volume El Jisal series: Snow, Fire, Sword; The Curse of Zohreh; The Tyrant’s Nephew and The Maharajah’s Ghost. I chose each of those tales as inspiration because I felt they each had wonderful paths to explore, characters I could embroider on, magical backgrounds that were enticing…And so it proved to be!
What to me makes traditional fairytales particularly suitable as a basis for modern fantasy fiction is that in themselves they mix both enchantment and pragmatism, the world of the everyday and a realm of pure magic. And it’s all done in such a matter of fact yet also profound way. You can never get to the end of the meanings of fairytale; and the fairytales of a people reveal their essence, their soul, if you like, in a moving yet also funny and beautiful way.
And it’s not just the folk-based fairytales such as the Arabian Nights, Grimm’s collections and Perrault’s that are so inspirational. Original fairytales can also work this way: think of Hans Christian Andersen and Madame Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote Beauty and the Beast, a story which has inspired countless writers, including me with Scarlet in the Snow!
The biggest challenges of basing your original work on such well-known tales is that, of course, people have certain assumptions about the characters and the way the story goes. But though in my fairytale novels, I keep to the basic inspiration of the tale, it’s my story I’m creating and I make it very much my vision of the central character, the story arc etc. In fact the challenges are what makes I think the story so good to write as you are constantly open to the unexpected that will transform familiar territory into surprising discovery. In the classic fairytales of course, things just happen–because they do, and that’s the meaning of them in the tale if you like–but in a novel of course you do need to ask, why? who? what if? And so on. And that is exciting. It’s like following a detective trail, burrowing deeper into the heart of the tale, and finding your own new meanings within them.
My love for these traditional tales has led me recently into a wonderful new adventure.
In January 2013, working in partnership with two other creator friends in my home town of Armidale in northern NSW, illustrator David Allan and author/artist/designer/dollmaker Fiona McDonald, I became one of the founders of Christmas Press, a new children’s publishing house. Why did we do that? Well, we all love the gorgeous classic picture books that we grew up with, the kind which featured retold traditional stories and beautiful illustrations, opening children–and their families–to a wealth of wonderful tales from around the world, and we felt that such books were now difficult to find. But rather than complain about it, we decided to do something about it–and so Christmas Press was born! And why Christmas Press as a name? Well, we all remembered the special excitement of getting those beautiful books under the Christmas tree. But our founding motto, ‘Books to cherish every day’, also tells you that these books are certainly not just for special occasions!
Though our first title Two Trickster Tales from Russia featured my retelling of two fabulous Russian folktales, David’s illustrations and Fiona’s design, we only started with our own work as we knew we were taking a risk dipping a toe into the publishing water at all, and it was better to take that risk with our own work than gamble with someone else’s! The first book was certainly a lot of work and a very steep learning curve. But it was great to work through the process, first of concept, then layout, then design, over many lively working meetings. The printing costs for the first print run were partly funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which received fantastic support from fellow authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, readers, booksellers—and even other publishers!
Since then, we have published seven other books in the ‘Two Tales’ series. The wonderful authors who have worked with us to create these retellings of classic stories include Ursula Dubosarsky, Kate Forsyth, Duncan Ball, John Heffernan, Adele Geras, Margrete Lamond, and Gabrielle Wang. We were thrilled that they enjoyed working with us, and that they didn’t mind that as a tiny press, our advances are very small—though we pay standard royalties. The opportunity to work in an area they really love but find difficult to interest big publishers in, was often mentioned as a great drawcard by authors. A big plus for us in attracting such talented and well-known creators!
Though most of our illustrations for the Two Tales series were done inhouse by David or Fiona, we also worked with other emerging illustrators: Kate Durack, whose powerful work illustrates John Heffernan’s magisterial retellings of Mesopotamian tales; and Ingrid Kallick, whose magical pictures illustrate Margrete Lamond’s engaging retellings of Norwegian tales.
In just five short years, Christmas Press has acquired a reputation for beauty, fun and high quality, with excellent reviews in national publications, shortlistings for awards, international sales, and even a mention for one of our titles, Kate Forsyth and Fiona McDonald’s beautiful Two Selkie Stories from Scotland, in the most recent edition of the very prestigious Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.
Christmas Press also publishes anthologies of original Christmas-themed stories, poems and illustrations, and in 2016 we debuted two new imprints: Second Look, for republications in print on demand form of out of print titles by well-known Australian children’s author; and Eagle Books, which concentrates on adventure fiction for readers 11 and up, whose launch title, also in 2016, was the first translation in over a hundred years of Jules Verne’s great classic adventure novel, Mikhail Strogoff, and was followed by, to date, two other fabulous adventure novels by contemporary authors, with more to come.
But although, after eight titles published in the Two Tales series, we have decided to concentrate on other types of books, we are immensely proud to have helped to bring these small but beautiful tales to a new generation of readers. That is truly something to celebrate!
Recently I ran two poetry workshops for children 6-12 years old in my hometown public library. They were sequential workshops: in the first one, I talked about writing poetry, based on the gorgeous book A Boat of Stars, in which I have 7 poems–and talked about how ideas from poetry can come from anywhere, then we orally created a (rather silly!) poem together, and then everyone chose their own subject and wrote their own poem. In the second workshop, I talked about how you can illustrate and decorate a poem to create an artwork out of it in all kinds of ways(again, that was inspired by A Boat of Stars!) And then the kids set to and created their own poem artwork, based on the poem they had written the previous week. The library had provided lots of coloured pencils and pens, stickers, magazine pictures to cut out, coloured shapes and paper and more. Everyone had a lot of fun and there were some amazing creations–have a look at the photo gallery!