Teri Sloat: Life is Simply Complicated

Now I’m having a big problem with my present day career;
My ship, she has a rudder, but I don’t know where to steer.
Am I country, pop, or rock n’roll?
I know they are related.
I’ll just let you be the judge,
It’s simply complicated.
Life is complicated with its if’s and and’s and but’s.
It’s alright to be crazy….just don’t let it drive you nuts!

Andromeda sent me some questions after my second blog that hit close to home, so this will be less philosophy and more about combining parts of my career that call for different venues and schedules. Like the song above, my ship often heads in different directions, and I find myself “going with the flow” instead of steering against the current. It often leads to complications but always to good surprises and an interesting trip. The result is often a mixture of unexpected finishes and many projects that “drift.”

Q. Since you both write and do art, how do certain projects unfold? Have you done both things in most of your books?

A. I have given a talk several times at conferences called, WHICH COMES FIRST, THE PICTURE OR THE WORD? For the first fifteen years of my commercial writing career all the projects I worked on were headed for a book…that was my dream, and we were raising kids and putting them through college, so I had to keep my rudder headed straight to sales and marketing. If I found I had an idea that didn’t fit into a picture book, I put it away. If I had a piece of art that told a story, but did not seem headed for book form, I put it away.

But when our last daughter headed for college, I had time to take art lessons and found that I had the same passion for plein air painting and folk art that I had for writing and illustration. My worlds often split as I started having shows and took time away from my writing just to develop my art. But once in a while they came together…a picture like FEEDING TIME is now slowly working its way into a wordless book form. Only after having the picture with me for a while did I realize that the woman in the birdhouse had her own story.

The picture at the top of this post is from a set of large canvases I did for the Boston Children’s Hospital…no words yet, but a series of images of a pair of birds taking a vacation. On its questionable way to becoming a book, it has become an animated android app that you can watch on www.terisloat.blogspot.com. It is waiting for the second half of the story.

After writing JACK AND THE BEANS TALK, which was for theater, I met a duck that I could picture walking on the stage and sounding like Seinfeld’s Kramer. I had been writing dialogues, monologues, etc, for the play and suddenly could hear a monologue…so the play was a time out, but the result was a book. Writing the play with its jazz and blues songs taught me to hear our written language a different way. I wanted to be the illustrator for I’M A DUCK! So I did both for the writing and the illustrator, backed the duck up from being an adult to hatching out and being totally in love with each phase of his life, from hatching to flying to meeting a girl to becoming a dad. (That was the primary teacher in me showing the life cycle of a duck, I’m sure.) The follow-up for the book, which for one brief second I thought might be a sequel, only turned out to be entertainment at conferences. When our kids were all out of the house, we experienced a little “empty-nest” syndrome. So I wrote I’M A DUCK WITH AN EMPTY NEST…sort of the duck’s version of teaching kids to drive and being left behind, then being forced to take a migration vacation with his wife, etc. It is not a book, just something fun to read and share…it’s that reality of packaging again.

Q. What percentage is just the art, and any just writing?

A. Well, this is easy. A picture book is a unique experience for the reader. While the words and images need to add to each other, both the writing and the art need to feel like they are from the same world. My goal is to have a book that transports the reader without interruption into a story. If I feel like I am not the right illustrator for a book…i.e. the FARMER BROWN books needed a looser, more comedic illustration than what I do…I ask that the publisher to find another illustrator, and they have been great about taking suggestions. So, out of twenty something books, about seven are illustrated by someone else, and I am the illustrator for two books by other authors, one of which is DANCE ON A SEALSKIN, by Barbara Winslow. And I am just writing….often for myself until I see what happens to the story. I still write to work out my own thoughts, started two novels that are not finished.

Q. Do you prefer to do both parts, or to work with another writer?

A. If this is like which part do I like the best or which is the easiest for me, the answer is that the writing is always easier. The art takes longer, feels like more of a gamble when it comes to books. I only illustrate for other writers if the subject hits close to home or is just plain fun.

So here is my current list of preferences:

First: art work that is done for pleasure…whether landscapes or folk art. I often ask why it bothers me to put so much time into a book before it sells when it doesn’t bother me to pour endless hours into gallery pieces that may not sell. Single pieces of art are relaxing…different than weaving images together for a story.

I love creating images that tell a folkloric story from my imagination

Second: Writing…and all the research you get to do over the simplest story.

Third: Illustration….because it is the hardest, and because I am terrible at organizing a storyboard and dummy…it is the only part of creating books I am not in love with. I actually love creating the final illustrations.

But the rewards are often reversed…a written and illustrated book is my biggest trophy and connects me to the most people. My folkloric art that is in galleries has a style that is labored over with acrylic and color pencil that takes days, which is the time I spend entertaining myself by making a story I can share on a wall, but not yet in a book.

Q. Is every story or collaboration different? Those of us who only write often puzzle about how to break into the children’s book business.

A. While every story and collaboration is different, there are a few things that help people break into the children’s book business.

Join SCBWI, read their newsletter and go to their regional meetings. Most agents and editors will not look at your manuscript unless you belong. It is where you learn the basics of the business, meet art directors, agents, editors, authors, etc., and often where authors new to the medium get permission to send manuscripts to closed houses.

Read and study endless piles of picture books or chap
ter books. Criticize them, admire them and look up their creators on the internet and learn their stories. The internet is a wealth of background on how books are made.

If you are an illustrator, take art lessons…a part I avoided way too long. Learn the basics of drawing in general, not just your subject matter, and learn to use a variety of mediums. Your job is to choose the right medium or to perfect a medium that lets us sink into a new world.

As for the Jimmy Buffet song, the part I have to remind myself of often, is that even when I’m not steering my ship, it is headed somewhere, and though I head into other genres, they are all related to storytelling and sharing what I see and feel.

Please share some of the journeys that you have been on, both the drifting and steering.

Thanks to Teri Sloat for being our February featured author. We’ll have one more post from her tomorrow. Teri has a show coming up this Friday, March 2, at Stephan Fine Arts in Anchorage.
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