Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Audience as Artist

Everyone talks about the creative process in terms of the artist. No one, it seems, talks about the creative process in terms of the viewer or the reader or the listener. After all, people think, it is the artist who is creative. 

I can’t argue with this, but what I can say is:  A successful artist lets the audience be part of the creative process. He makes his work interactive in a way that hyperlinking can never do.

Obvious examples of the kind of interaction I am talking about are Escher’s illustrations. The mind becomes totally engaged every time it looks at one of his images. An example from literature might be any of the works by Dickens. There is always something new to discover about one of his characters, who because they are so vividly portrayed, feel as though they are part of your world. You identify with and care about the people he brings to life in his books. And as for music, choose any of a number of composers who allow you to create without words or pictures a special place in your mind to explore.

In some ways, I am saying nothing terribly new. Writers are always admonished to let the reader feel the emotion. A good writer doesn’t say, “He got really angry.” Instead, a good writer is supposed to say “He threw the vase against the wall so hard that the sound of shattering glass drowned out the insults he hurled at his girlfriend.” A good painter suggests a hot day by his choice of color not by showing the sun in the sky. I could go on, but you get the point: you always leave room for people to come to their own conclusions about what is going on.  If they don’t get the feeling that the boyfriend was angry or that it was a hot day, then the artist has failed. 

This failure is easy to see in children. If they are not engaged, they simply close the book and look for another. They flip to another channel, or—heavens!—they go outside and hope to find a friend to play with.

I am reminded of a Psych 100 teacher I had who played a mental game with the two hundred or so freshmen crammed into the lecture hall. He was going to read a list of words and our task was to remember as many of them as we could. His plan, or so he told us, was to show us how collective memory works. He began: snow, salt, paper, clouds, waves, sugar, baking soda, teeth, toothpaste, etc. We all did well collectively reconstructing the list, but we all failed at the same time: we all insisted that the word ‘white’ was on his list. It was not. We had created ‘white’ out of association. I realized then and there the power of not saying what you want to say.

But this power is only part of what I have to say about inviting the viewer, the listener, the reader to be part of the creative process. 

A few months ago, I saw the movie “The King’s Speech.” What amazed me was how the writer had engaged the audience by anticipating their reaction and building upon that reaction. Here was Prince Albert George, etc., etc., the future king of England seeking help from a commoner, a speech therapist not of the ilk of those on Harley Street. Of course, the prince didn’t want to say who he really was; so it was a delight to listen to the audience’s reaction when the therapist insisted that the two of them be on a first name basis. Imagine! Calling a prince by his first name. Imagine! Calling Queen Elizabeth Liz. It’s this ‘imagine!’ part that I mean by engaging the audience. This was only the first in a series of ‘imagine!’ scenes in the movie. By the middle of the movie, the audience was audibly ensnared: they oohed and aahed and were deliciously tickled by what was happening.  In the end, when the prince had become king and had to deliver the greatest speech of his life, he succeeded and you knew that the audience was hanging on to his every word. The audience just didn’t identify with the characters. They didn’t just make all of the right emotional associations. They created that movie in their minds just as much as the actors, the director, the producers, and above all, the screen writer did.

It is hard to understand the power of anticipating the audience’s reaction and building upon that reaction. Not only is Dickens going to create unforgettable characters but he is going to let you think that you already know them. Not only is Escher going to surprise you with impossible pictures, but he is going to let you think that you can understand them. Not only is Mozart going to give you a series of beautiful notes but he is going to let you think that you had something to do with creating them by his preparing for their arrival, just as the screenwriter—David Seidler—prepared the audience for what was going to happen in the therapist’s office in “The King’s Speech.”

It is hard to image how all of this is going to work in a children’s picture book, but it does work. Look at the great books such as Blueberries for Sal. We are in that kitchen in Maine. We are out there picking berries with Sal, and—what is really important, the author and illustrator Robert McCloskey generously lets us create the next scene in our minds before we turn the page. 

I have only begun to put down in words what I have been thinking for many years. The important thing is: maybe with this start, you can make your own observations. Start with commercials on TV. Why do you like watching some commercials over and over? Why do other commercials annoy you? I have a feeling that for those you like, you’ll say that you felt part of the creative process.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

I can’t remember how this expression came about, but it does describe the role of the book designer in the creation of a children’s picture book. People talk about the author and the illustrator, but they rarely mention the person who decides what typeface (nowadays read: font) to use, how the text should be distributed through out the book and what the dimensions of the finished book should be.

Some self-published authors and illustrators I’ve meant think that they can make these relatively easy decisions themselves—and they can, but first they need to think about a children’s book as having—well—a personality. Sure the personality of a book comes across through the story and the pictures, but it also comes across in these four ways:

I :: typeface  

Typefaces, fonts—there are hundreds to choose from. There are whole groups of them that look alike, such as these two groups: serif and sans serif.
The serifs are the little cross bars at the top and bottom of a letter like the capital I:


Sans serif faces have no crossbars:


Within these two large groups are countless variations to fit every mood and style. I have a friend who is a type designer. He often sends me samples of a type face he is working on and asks my opinion about such things as: Is the o too round? Should the q and p go down lower? What do you think about the thickness of the capital M? Is the lower case n too wide?  These might seem trivial questions, but they are not. The answer to each determines the overall look and feel of the typeface.

If you are going to design your own book, experiment with typefaces. Set your text in first one typeface then another and gauge your reaction. Does typeface A make you feel too heavy? Does typeface B fit the mood of the story?

Another way to heighten your awareness about the effect of type on a book is to go to the library and look at books. Choose the children’s books you have always liked and see how the typeface enhances the story. 

Ask yourself these questions:

1  Is the typeface kid friendly? Would a kid have trouble reading it?

2  What size is the type? 

3  What color is the type? If it isn’t black, does the color help?

4  Does the typeface fit the story? In a book I saw the other day about flying, the author chose a typeface that was, in my opinion, too heavy looking, too every-day:  its strokes were thick and didn’t flow at all; it had the look of a newspaper.

5  Does the typeface fit the pictures? If the illustrations are woodcuts, the type needs to be sturdy enough to be noticed. In the years following Gutenberg, this problem was easily solved. The type was thick and so were the lines of the illustrations, which had to be cut out of wood. 

In Italy, the woodcarvers were able to make more delicate lines and this was a perfect match for the serif and italic faces they were developing.

6  Is the type on the title page and the cover different from the type used in the book? If so, how do these choices make you feel about the book?

How many different typefaces are used in the book. Too many is often a bad idea, but sometimes lots of different typefaces add a certain spontaneity and craziness to a book.

II :: dimensions

Square books, oblong books, tall books, tiny books—each has its own appeal and either helps the story and pictures or lessens their effectiveness. Think how brilliant Beatrice Potter was, for, I believe, it was she who decided that her books should be small for little hands. Her books make for intimate reading. In my book about the Cherokee Sequoyah, I decided that the format should be tall and narrow like the sequoia tree. Once I decided that, everything seemed to fall into place: the tall narrow illustrations, the placement of the text on the page, and the size of the text blocks.

While dimensions are important, right now in the self-publishing world of print-on-demand [POD] books and e-books, you have little choice. Although there are two kinds of formats: portrait books (books that are taller than they are wide) and their opposite: landscape books, there is really only one choice: portrait books. Why? I don’t know. Sizes, too, are limited. But that is today. In a few weeks or a few months, all of this may change.

Still my point is: size does matter. Orientation of the text and pictures does matter. If you are going to self-publish and if your book needs to be a landscape book, then either wait for things in the POD world to change or spend the money and have your book printed the traditional way with thousands of copies arriving at your doorstep from China. 

Another aspect of size is the number of pages. The industry standard is that a children’s picture book has 32 pages. Within these 32 pages, there are usually 3 non-story pages: the title, the copyright page, and the dedication page. This, too, is changing. Right now, with POD books, you can have a book anywhere from 16 to 48 pages. The cost is the same. This is not the case with books printed by the big guys like Random House or Houghton Mifflin. Before they decide to do a 48-page book, they have to carefully consider the extra cost and whether the projected sales will meet that cost.

III :: page-breaks

Forgive the pun, but this can make or break your book. Deciding where to break up a text into pages is one of the most important decisions. When I have finished writing a story, I take a deep breath and begin breaking it up into pages. If it distributes itself evenly from page to page, I know I have a pretty good story. Why? Because no one part is heavier than the other. I first noticed this in reading books by Chris van Allsburg. On each page was the same size text block. Visually this was appealing and, what is more, this uniformity helped the story.
I have always broken up my stories. Even in the days when it was the editor’s job to do so. This was because, early on, I realized that by doing this, I could judge the pace of the story. I could see what parts needed more emphasis and where I could add a bit of energy.

Energy? Yes. Maybe, in a story about a red balloon, all you want on one of the pages  is the word: 


Or in a fast-moving story about a race, you want to give each of these word groups its own page: 

and faster,  
tumbling and rolling,
squawking and squealing,
flapping and flabbing (a word?),
peacock and pig arrived at the bottom of the hill.
But who was first? No one knew, for all anyone could see was a ball of feathers and fat.

Again go to the library and look at books for their page-breaks. 

Type, dimensions, page-breaks—pretty elementary stuff, or so it seems. So is getting dressed in the morning. Yet, why is it that so-and-so looks elegant and has it together while another looks—well—like he or she’s just gotten up.

This posting seems to be aimed at the person who wants to self-publish. While this is largely true, I do think that every author or illustrator should understand the structure of a children’s book: the third dimension, the thing that people rarely talk about—book design.