Illustrator Turns Author

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Illustrator Turns Author

Lauren Scheuer’s illustrations have appeared in books and magazines including American Girl publications, Muse Magazine, Birds and Blooms, and Scholastic publications.

Recently, she took a leap and became an author as well.

Her new book Once Upon a Flock is written and illustrated (and photographed) by Lauren and tells the heart warming story of how she came about raising chickens in her backyard based on her wonderful blog called Scratch and Peck. But the story of how she became an author is just as interesting so I decided to interview Lauren so that we could all learn from her experience.

1) Why did you start blogging about your chickens? Lucy beats the heat
Well, I’ve been an illustrator for…ever.  I’ve always wanted to write and illustrate, but I never felt really enthusiastic about any of the stories I came up with. Like so many other writers, I’ve got a drawer full of book dummies and half-baked ideas.

Then suddenly, five years ago, I realized I had a story- It was an epic, gripping tale. It was completely true. And it was unfolding right in my backyard!

So, here I finally had something worth writing about. Here were the characters, the drama, the good, the evil, the heartbreak, the humor. It was consuming me- my mind, my life, and I needed to tell it. Unfortunately, I’m an illustrator, not a writer.

I needed to learn how to write.

So I started my blog.

2) At what point did you start feeling that you were good at writing and that your plan might actually work? And what would you have done had you realized you weren’t any good?
The first few blog posts were a bit random, but soon I became more comfortable mixing words and photos and illustrations, and the blog format really lent itself to the way I was writing.  My goal was to be brief, colorful and entertaining.

I invited — well, actually I begged — friends and family to read my blog posts.  Little by little, folks began giving me feedback.  There were posts that received no feedback as well. So I compared the successful stories to the unsuccessful ones, and I learned what worked and what didn’t.

And then there was a specific moment at which I became a “writer”.   It was after I had completed a blog post that seemed just right.   I got the same kind of high that I get after doing a good piece of art.   You know what I mean?  Whether you use words or a paintbrush or a guitar or a spatula- it feels so wonderful when you hit the nail on the head!

I was determined to grow and improve until I really learned the craft of writing. I’m still working on it.  I’ll never stop growing. pigeon sketchbook

3) How often do you post on your blog and, considering the amount of work you put into them (illustrations, photos, illustrated photos), how long does it take to create a typical post?
Not often enough.  My blog posts do boost sales of my book, so I always feel like I ought to be blogging more frequently.

I average about once a month these days.  Back at the beginning – three years ago – I posted about once a week.

With the story, illustrations and photos, each post takes about a week to evolve in my head, and then a full day or two of writing and drawing to complete.     Some bloggers blog every day or every few days, but their process may not be as time consuming.

4) What’s your process? Do you plan it out or just start writing and see where things go?
My process is a little bit backwards. Rather than writing a story and then illustrating it, I collect all my images first and then the images generate the story.

The post I’m working on now is about Scarlett, one of my four youngest hens, who has suddenly become smitten with Marky, who is my scruffy white Terrier. Marky’s totally freaked out by this, and I’m trying to iron out the conflict and misunderstanding before Scarlett gets her head bitten off.  It’s a true story, evolving daily.

I’ve been taking photos to illustrate the story.  Once I have enough images in a folder on the desktop, I’ll begin writing the blog post, uploading images and writing at the same time.  I love this process because I have no idea what I’m going to write until I sit down and start typing.

5) What does your illustration process look like? Do you draw by hand or  scan and color? What program(s) so you use? Do you sketch on paper or is it all on the computer? pigeon pencil
Sometimes, I do the line work by hand with a pencil or pen, then I scan into Photoshop to add color. Other times, I use a Wacom tablet to draw in Photoshop.  Then sometimes, I add illustration to photos, layering the art. I always use Photoshop.  I [heart] Photoshop!

6) So you’re blogging along and starting to feel good about what you’re doing and you decide it’s time to write your book. Please walk us through your earliest steps.
I began by envisioning this book. It would be an illustrated memoir- The true and epic tale of my backyard flock. I would use the blog posts as my outline. It would be packed with photos and illustrations.

I then asked myself a number of questions: Would it be hard or soft cover Would it be a gift-book, a coffee-table book, a kids’ book, a standard size or an odd shape? I realized, however, that these questions could be answered later.

7) Did you write a book proposal? Did you start writing the book? How about an agent?
I read a few books on getting published. I Googled the topic and learned some more.  The first step was to write a proposal. Then I would send out query letters to agents. The agent hunt took months. Every literary agent has his or her own specialty, passion, genre, etc..  The challenge is to find the agent who feels passionately about YOUR book. Agency websites are a terrific resource. Many agencies spell out very clearly how to write a query letter and what to include in a book proposal.

chick scratchedWhile writing and hunting, I also was reading as many books in my genre as I could find, such as Wesley the Owl, by Stacey O’Brien, The Good Good Pig, by Sy Montgomery, The Daily Coyote, by Shreve Stockton, and Marley and Me, by John Grogan. Marley and Me was a story that had gone far beyond the successful book.  It had become a movie, a series of children’s books, a plush toy…basically a legend! No average agent could guide a book or an author through such a variety of media and successes. I wanted John Grogan’s agent, so I looked her up on Google and found her- Laurie Abkemeier of De Fiore and Company.

I sent her a query letter.  I gave her a brief background on myself as a published illustrator and a brief synopsis of the story of my soulful flock.  I wrote that I knew I should be querying other agents as well, but that I was only writing to her because she was the only agent I wanted. Marky and the flock

8) How did she respond to that email? Was it a fast sell? Did you both commiserate over the similarly unusual spelling at the end of your last names?
Yes, Laurie responded to my query within a couple of days.   She told me she would be interested in looking at my book proposal. So I sent it to her.

I had followed guidelines I had found on agents’ websites, and had created a proposal that was about 20 pages long.  An entire completed manuscript was not required at this time because my book is nonfiction and because I had a good solid outline of the story already.  And yes- Ms. Abkemeier and I did commiserate on our impossible last names.

9) What were the first steps you and your agent took towards putting something together that a publisher would be interested in?
There was a lot of back and forth and a lot of editing of the proposal.  It actually took months.  Once the proposal was finished, it was well over 50 pages long.  We had marketing plans, readership analyses, some sample images and sample chapters.

10) And then, did your agent take it from there?
Yes, she took it from there. She did what she does best, and I waited.  She gave me periodic updates on publishers and their responses. Within a few weeks, we had an offer from Atria Books, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

11) What sold Atria Books on your proposal?
I haven’t the foggiest, but this particular editor has a passion for critter-tales.  She’s an animal lover, and my agent knew that.  The editor – Leslie Meredith – was enthusiastic and supportive throughout the whole publishing process. Her assistant, Donna Loffredo, kept me organized and on track. They were wonderful to work with.

12) Once you found an interested publisher, what did you have to do and what did your agent take care of initially? How long did you take to finish the book?
In real life, the plot was already complete.  I chose to end the story with Lucy and Pigeon’s newfound friendship – although the drama continued – and continues today.

My agent and my editor solved all contractual issues while I continued to write the book. I had 20-something chapters to deliver, with thumbnail artwork in place.  I had about four months to complete the manuscript.  I freaked out, over and over, alone in my studio- Angst, tears, hysterical laughter, reams of paper, hundreds of Photoshop images, butcher paper rolled out across the studio floor, me on my knees frantically scrawling memory after memory. Then I spent a month or two creating art and cleaning up art and photos, and sending them to the publisher’s assistant in proper format, with a system that she devised to keep 400 images in order.

After the book came out, I followed through on my commitment to exhaustively promote it online and in person, but that is a story for another day….

Thank you for sharing your experience with us Lauren!

Once Upon a Flock is available in book stores and online.

Lucy approves

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