Switching Genres: Surprise, It’s A Novel! by Elizabeth O. Dulemba
This spring I celebrated the release of my debut historical fiction mid-grade, A BIRD ON WATER STREET. Many of my writer/illustrator friends were surprised. “You write novels too?” To the outside world, it appeared that I had suddenly switched genres, but to me, it seemed like a natural progression.
It took ten years from the inception of my novel to publication. In other words, I had been working on the novel during most of the breadth of my 14-year-career as a picture book author and illustrator. So how can it be switching genres when I’ve been writing a novel all along? It simply took more time for my novel to reach the public.
The reaction was similar to when I started writing as a kid. Back then, my art abilities showed up pretty early. I wasn’t a Rembrandt, I just happened to display advanced skills for my age and was summarily labeled as an artist. Years later, I began to write stories as well. It wasn’t a surprise to me. The drawings I did were illustrations based on the stories that filled my head. But no, I had already been labeled an artist. I couldn’t be a writer too!
The implication was that you only get one thing. But I’ve found that when people have one strong creative trait, they tend to have many, so I never thought it strange that I both wrote and illustrated picture books.
Of course, now the line has become, “But you’re a picture book author/illustrator. You can’t be a novelist too!” Surprise!
Again, it seemed like a natural progression because my picture book skills completely informed and led to the novel. To my mind, learning to write and illustrate picture books is the best training to learn how to write anything well.
On writing: as you hone your picture book writing skills, you learn to reduce text down to its most meaningful elements and to hear the rhythm of words, words chosen precisely to relay a specific idea clearly and lyrically. Picture book writing is straight forward, concise, and poetic. While writing the novel, my voice was often hoarse by the end of a long day from reading aloud to make sure I had that rhythm right. I learned that while waxing rhapsodic may seem to be the definition of literary writing, it doesn’t necessarily make for better writing. Just like in picture books, I worked to reduce the use of clauses and complex sentence structures, and to get my point across with brevity. Hey, it worked for Hemingway and Twain, why not me?
On illustrating: as a visual thinker, I was able to relay the sights, sounds, images and feel of the Copper Basin, where my story takes place around the closing of a copper mine in 1986, as if I were creating a painting. I could see the environmental devastation caused by a century of poor mining practices in my mind, and therefore I could describe it. So by writing visually, I was able to transport my readers to the denuded 50-square-mile landscape where 13-year-old Jack lives. Where he has no trees in his life (they were all cut down to fuel the roasting ore heaps), but instead is surrounded by deep erosion ditches, houses that teeter on bare ground like poorly anchored accessories, and a company that resembles a dark scab on the horizon as well as on Jack’s life.
The novel took me ten years to write because during that time I was going back and forth, honing my craft as a picture book creator, learning how to truly write and relay images with veracity and confidence. And that just plain took time.
If anything has truly switched it’s not my creation process, it’s my audience.
What did feel completely different was the marketing. After years of launching picture books, I was caught somewhat off-guard by the sheer work it took to market a novel. Yes, there was the book tour, library visits, and public events, which I was used to, but there was also an incredible demand for interviews and articles (like this one) for various blogs, trade magazines, and media outlets.
Because, where picture book readers are mostly young children and their parents, novel readers are more autonomous. They read the related advertising, they ask questions, and they give first-hand feedback, which was (mostly) extremely fun.
I’ve been thrilled by the 40+ five and four star reviews on Amazon, the four awards A BIRD ON WATER STREET has already received, the reader who planted a tree in the book’s honor, and the Copper Basin community where the book is now required reading so that students can learn about their own history and have a sense of pride in their home as a result.
The entire experience of creating a novel has been enormously satisfying. I hope readers will be open to further novels from me as I have more in the works. But have I truly switched genres? Nah. I still love writing and illustrating picture books and they’ll continue to inform my other creations. I’ll just keep writing novels too and surprise everybody every few years.
Elizabeth O. Dulemba is an award-winning children’s book author/illustrator with two-dozen titles to her credit. She is a board member for the Georgia Center for the Book and Visiting Associate Professor at Hollins University in the MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program. She also speaks regularly at schools, festivals, and events. Her most recent publications are a series of picture books for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the novel, A BIRD ON WATER STREET. Her “Coloring Page Tuesday” images (free to parents, teachers and librarians) garner around a million hits to her website annually with nearly 4,000 subscribers to her newsletter. Learn more at http://dulemba.com.