Frequently Asked Questions about Children’s and Game Publishing:
Q: I have an idea for a children’s book, what do I do next?
TD: If you are serious about entering the field of children’s publishing, there are some great books available that really go into how to break into the industry. They can usually be found at your local library or bookstore.
For writers, there are many newsgroups online which cater specifically to children’s books. For illustrators, a book dummy is a must. Illustrating a single image is one thing – understanding the layout of a book as a whole is entirely something else.
You may want to look into organizations, such as The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (aka the SCBWI), for a list of seminars and workshops in an area near you.
Q: How did you break into children’s publishing?
TD: I tried to send sample portfolios from afar when I was an art school grad (back in 1992), but it was to no avail. Angela and I then moved to New York City where I began dropping my portfolio off to the various publishing houses. Even then, it took almost three years to break into this field that I adore.
First off, I called many children’s illustrators to get tips on what to have in his portfolio. I began creating images of subjects I like to draw to fill my portfolio. Next, I created a book dummy to show that I understood how books were laid out and produced. Finally, I began going to the bookstore and library weekly to see what kind of books publishers where publishing. I would cater my submissions to publishing houses I thought would respond positively to my work.
I also began contributing work to children’s magazines. Having my work published in this form started creating a familiarity with my work and name.
But most importantly, I did not give up. Whenever I could, I met with editors and art directors in person. With every rejection I learned something new and changed my approach, until I finally got a portfolio I was really proud of. I continued to meet with publishers until I found an editor who really understood me and my potential.
Although I started illustrating for role-playing games, there was no gaming art in my children’s book portfolio. All the pieces were specifically created for the portfolio.
Q: Will you look at my idea for a children’s book? Perhaps we can collaborate?
TD: Though honored that you would think of me so highly, I have a multitude of stories that I have written at various stages of completion. I am devoting all of my time to making these stories a reality. Therefore, most every manuscript that comes under my nose is usually passed on so that I can continue to work on my own projects.
Q: How do you come up with your stories?
TD: There have been times when I would come up with a neat character, like Jimmy Zangwow, but wasn’t sure what to do with him. Where could I send him? What could he do? What trials and tribulations awaited him?
Story structure has been a very important factor in the books that I have created. And the study of how stories are built, tested, and received by the reader, is a fascinating one. There are some great books you may want to read which may inspire you.
First, I found a book about the most common plots used in modern storytelling. The book, 20 Master Plots, gives many examples of the various plot structures that make up most of today’s stories; whether they are for a book, television, or motion picture.
I am a big fan of the classic “Quest Plot” and Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero of 1000 Faces. I first learned of Joseph and his theories when doing research on George Lucas and how he created the Star Wars myth.
Taking Joseph’s theory and putting it into a storyteller’s toolbox, is a fantastic book that deals with nothing but the “Quest Plot” called The Writer’s Journey. This book discusses the various points a hero must make on his journey to become a true hero, and the archetypal characters he meets along the way that help/hinder him.
Did you ever wonder why Merlin and Gandalf and Obi-Wan Kenobi were all similar types of characters? Read The Writer’s Journey and you’ll know why.
Q: When you were starting out did you ever work with an agent? How do you feel about contacting literary/illustration agencies to sell your work to potential book publishers?
TD: Good question, but it is sort of a “Catch 22″ answer:
You can have quite a bit of success with an agent showing your work around for you. Many have great relationships with different houses, and can get your work into the most receptive hands. The problem is getting that agent.
Many times agents, like publishers, won’t touch someone until they are more established (at least some of the bigger agents). This means you have to try to get published on your own and start up your career, then they can then step in and help guide you (hopefully) upward.
My advice (and what worked for me): Try to get published on your own if you can, because you could spend just as much time courting an agency. You may be able to do it yourself. And keep in mind, agents take a percentage of your gross, and those first advances aren’t that big.
I held out for as long as I could until I got an agency to represent me. That’s because I wanted a BIG agency to represent me, one that could not only handle my books, but movies and licenses as well. I didn’t have representation until after my first few books were published. Prior to that, I had an entertainment attorney look over my contracts.
Which leads me to…
If you can’t find an agent, at least get an entertainment attorney (with book deal experience) to look over your contract. You need to be educated on how business is done with creative property, and an attorney is a good start. Some attorneys may want a percentage of your advance, or you may be able to pay them a flat fee. My advice is to do it, an ounce of prevention can go a long way.
Frequently Asked Questions About Books/Writing:
Q: What’s the first book you ever made? What was the first book you ever published?
TD: I have been making handmade books since I was a kid. In Boy Scouts I made a book on dinosaurs, which my mom helped me with. And I made a pocket field guide to insects. I also made a comic book about my pet hamster Max.
When I was 12, I created a book called “Gondwanaland” about a mysterious island full of weird and mysterious creatures. (In fact, I wrote a short story about it in Jon Scieszka’s anthology Guys Write for Guys Read back in 2005).
The first book ever published (by a large house) that I did artwork for was for a role-playing game called “Dragon Mountain”. It was for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and it came out in 1992, the same year I graduated art school.
The first book to be published that I wrote and illustrated was Jimmy Zangwow’s Out-of-this-World Moon Pie Adventure, which came out in 2000 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. You can see a list of all the books and games I’ve worked on in my bibliography.
Q: What other books have you written?
TD: All my main titles are featured in the BOOKS section of the website. Otherwise here is the short list:
Jimmy Zangwow’s Out-of-this-World Moon Pie Adventure (2000) – A crafty boy, a homemade spaceship, 1000 Moon pies and 900 Martians. What more do you need to know?
Ted (2001) – a bored lonely boy + a workaholic father + a gigantic pink rabbit (that only the boy can see) = Mayhem. A LOT of mayhem. (seriously, I had to put a warning on the back of the book).
The Spiderwick Chronicles (launched in 2003) – Three kids find an old dusty field guide (made by their great uncle) to fairies, trolls and goblins. Guess what? It’s all real. (co-created with Holly Black)
G is for One Gzonk! (2006) – This alpha-number-bet book teaches neither the alphabet nor counting. But this homage to Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear does teach silliness.
Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles (launched in 2007) – Three new kids and three new adventures. Thankfully, they get help from three old fairy specialists. (co-created with Holly Black)
Adventure of Meno (launched in 2009) – Meno is an elf of space. He talk funny. His best friend is jellyfish and a wish-granting sprite. These are all about pure nonsense and having fun with books.
The Search for WondLa (launched in 2010) – A girl is raised by a robot on an alien planet and realizes she is the only human there.
The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight (2014) – this picture retells the story of the greatest Jedi Knight of all with artwork by Academy Award-winning concept artist, Ralph McQuarrie.
Q: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read (written by someone else)?
TD: I read quite often and many of the books that I adored as a kid have shaped the types of books that I am making today.
This can be a long and ever-changing list for me. But, here are some all-time favorites:
Peter Pan and Wendy – J.M. Barrie’s classic has surly pirates, bloodthirsty native Americans, a hungry crocodile, feisty faeries and flying kids with weapons…what more could you ask for?
Watership Down – Richard Adams takes you on an incredible quest from a home colony that’s completely eradicated to Shangri la. One the way, there are monsters, villains, allies, oh, and a fascist leader trying to seize the hero’s new home…and its all told with rabbits. You read that right – rabbits.
The Mouse and The Motorcycle – Mouse buddy + toy motorcycle = Awesome!
The Lorax – In my mind, this one of Dr. Seuss’s undisputed classics. Sadly, we need the Lorax now more than ever.
Lafcadio: The Lion That Shot Back – One of Shel Silverstein’s lesser known titles, but one of my all-time favorites. Actually, I learned about this one when my younger brother read it for school and had me help with his book report. It is one of those stories that you will always remember.
You can read about more of my favorite books on Goodreads.
Q: What’s your favorite book that you wrote?
TD: Obviously I love all the books that I have done. I’ve spent so much time with them as a creator that love is the only way I’ll see them through to completion. Most of the ideas for my books have taken years to develop, and then add another year (at least) for producing the book (see question below), so you can see why each one has a special place in my heart.
Q: How long does it take you to make a book?
TD: Creating a book from scratch can take some time.
I usually jot out ideas in journals and sketchbooks and will often plot out the entire book writing on loose paper. While doing so, I may add scenes and make adjustments. Along the way, I will sketch characters, environments and scenes. This developing stage of a story can take years for me.
Then I begin the writing stage. I write out scenes in longhand then type everything into the computer, editing along the way. There isn’t anything glamorous about this aspect of writing–it’s writing, then rewriting–over and over again. I try to refine the prose to speak clearly to a young reader while not losing focus of the original spark of inspiration that got me working on a particular story in the first place.
And this stage can vary greatly in length depending on if you are writing a 500-word picture book or a 70,000-word novel. There is not a lot of drawing going on in this stage. Its a strong focus on getting the words right. Generally speaking, I take several months as I work through the various drafts.
Once the writing is in copy-editing at the publisher, it’s onto creating the artwork for the book. I like at least 6 months to work on for the final images. Bear in mind, that I’ve been sketching along the way throughout. So, it is usually years from the spark of an idea until I am looking at the proofs for a finished book. It is a labor of love.
On picture books, I’ll work on the story for 3-6 months refining the plot and simplifying the elements. Once my editor gets a hold of it, it can take several more months of editing and rewrites.
During that time, I’ll begin designing the characters and the initial layouts leading up to the book dummy. The final art usually takes about 4-6 months and we’ll continue to refine the text right up to the point that it heads out to the printer. The whole process can take about a year.
For chapter books, where the art is usually black & white (like The Spiderwick Chronicles), I was able to do the sketches and finish the pen & ink pieces in about 4 months for each book.
For the WondLa books, I take about six months to write the story and another six to create the artwork.
Now, I am at a point where there are stories being worked on that I have labored over for years. I really like this, it allows me to rethink and refine the plot and concept without having to rush out the book to meet a deadline. Currently, there are quite a few picture and chapter books in various stages of completion. My goal will be to release one a year, we’ll see how it goes…
Q: What’s your favorite character in a book? What’s your favorite character in a book that you created?
TD: I am really intrigued by J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Also, I love how unpredictable Lewis Carroll’s characters are from the Alice books.
As for ones that I have had a hand in creating, I adore Ted and I wish I could meet Arthur Spiderwick.
Q: How do you develop your characters?
TD: I think all of the characters I’ve created start out as fragments of myself that I’ve then built upon. Because, to really understand a character, good or bad, you have to walk in their shoes. To see the world through their eyes I need some sort of a common denominator that I can latch onto to begin building a personality, so it has to come from me.
Oftentimes, while I am figuring out who these characters are, I begin drawing them. It may be a portrait of their face, or perhaps a general body shape. Sometimes, like Mr. Spider in The Spider & The Fly, it’s all about the costume they wear…or the house they live in.
Q: What’s your preferred method of writing? Do you write in a notebook, on the computer, with music?
TD: I write everywhere. Usually in a sketchbook – where I can doodle and write out ideas. My iPhone is also chock-full of little post-it note ideas that hit me when I am out and about.
I listen to quite a bit of music while I work – though I cannot listen to anyone singing while I write. (Somehow the lyrics get all into my head). So I create playlists on iTunes of soundtracks and themes while I create.
For instance, while working on the Spiderwick books, I listened to:
“The Black Cauldron” soundtrack
“The Dark Crystal” soundtrack
“The City of Lost Children” soundtrack
“The Princess Bride” soundtrack
Q: Do you edit as you go? Do you have several drafts or does it come out exactly how you want it?
TD: It never comes out the way I want it. It is always a process. There is lots of refining. And this applies both to my writing and my art.
I try to capture the spark or essence of an idea as quickly and as non-processed as I can. I jot it down or scribble it out in a sketch. Then I think about. I ponder it in all sorts of ways: What does this idea mean? How could I present it in the clearest possible way? Will others understand it? Enjoy it? Care about it?
From there, I explore the idea. I bounce it off of family and friends. I write out possible plot paths. I sketch out possible character designs. Sometimes, I put it all away and let it germinate a little longer.
To give you an idea of how this works, The Spiderwick Chronicles was based off of an idea I had when I was 12. I made a field guide to dragons, trolls and fairies, and I never forgot about it.
In 2001, I was asked by my (then) editor, Kevin Lewis, what my dream-project would be – I suggested this field guide. The story of Arthur Spiderwick, the character that created the guide, had grown over the years as I had periodically returned to the project. Eventually it evolved into the book series, film, etc.
The same applies for my new trilogy of books. The Search for WondLa is based on an idea I was playing around with back in 1997-1998. That’s a nice long time to really sit and figure what this story is and what it isn’t. All this time I’ve written drafts, had friends give feedback and developed the world visually with drawings. For me, one discipline always fuels the other: the drawings inspire words, which inspire more drawings.
Other projects, like Kenny & The Dragon or The Spider & The Fly, came from a long-time love of the classics.
In both cases, it started with coming up with a fresh approach to a story (or poem) that many are familiar with. In the case of Spider & Fly, my editor simply sent over Mary Howitt’s poem. As I read the famous lines, my mind jumped to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies or Chas Addams’ Mother Goose. Immediately, I sketched out my idea for Mr. Spider and for Ms. Fly, and I was on my way.
For Kenny & The Dragon, it was a complete re-imagining of Kenneth Grahame’s short story The Reluctant Dragon. I wanted to re-tell the story in the tradition of old fairy tales that get re-told periodically so that readers of today may enjoy it. My hope is that someone else will tackle it years from now. Classic tales like that need to stay on kids’ bookshelves, no matter what form they are in.
Q: Why do you think the Spiderwick series has been so successful — and how do you feel about saying farewell to it?
TD: Honestly. The series was much more successful than I ever could have imagined. I think that it was, in part, to paying attention to what was happening in children’s publishing at the time, and making some big decisions early on. In the beginning, as I had pitched the concept to my (then) editor Kevin Lewis, I really had just wanted to do a John James Audubon-esque field guide to fairies, trolls and goblins. There was a loose back-story on an old fellow, Arthur Spiderwick, who created this guide. That, of course, was what intrigued Kevin the most.
We realized almost immediately that we were talking about two books – the big illustrated field guide, and the story of the man who created it. While on tour for my picture book, The Spider & The Fly, I spoke to many kids, from kindergarten to fifth grade, and realized the gamut of reading levels from individual to individual – one kid would be reading the latest Harry Potter book, while another was reading Magic Tree House. We knew there was something here that could, perhaps, speak to both readers.
Kevin and I started to understand that maybe there was more than one big (500-page) book here. Enter Holly Black, whom I felt could write these easily as she knew the folklore well, and had been helping me with the research for the field guide already.
With Holly on board, the three of us came up with the idea of moving the story forward to modern day with modern-day kids, and to break the 500-page story into smaller parts aimed for 7 to 10 year-olds. It became more a serial than a series, with plenty of artwork to visually break up the text.
On top of that, Kevin took advantage of Holly’s emerging young-adult voice and kept the tone of the books a tad older than what was usual for the age range we now had in mind. Summoning my fond memories of Arthur Rackham’s work, I tried to mirror that tone visually. In the end we created a series of books that were aimed for a younger-than-Harry-and-Snicket audience, but were presented in a sophisticated package reminiscent of old fairy tales.
As far as saying farewell, I feel we achieved much more success with this series than we imagined. I take comfort in the fact that we concluded it on a high note with a backlist of plenty of books to enjoy, but not so many that the “specialness” of the series is diluted over too many titles.
Q: What did you think of the Spiderwick movie?
TD: The filmmakers did a great job of adapting the stories. I really got a chance to see firsthand what goes into making a film. I understood a lot of the changes from the source material and agreed with most of them – simply put, they couldn’t jam everything from all five books into one film. It would have been really long, and really expensive.
But they did manage to retain the themes of the books (like Jared’s growth in dealing with his parent’s separation, and the knowledge that can be contained in a single book). And, of course, I loved seeing my creature designs brought to life. That’s my childhood dream-come-true!
It was an awesome ride. I’m ready to do it again.
Q: What’s the etiquette for a book signing? Can I bring copies of older books from home for you to sign? How about Magic the Gathering cards? Should I buy the book at the store or get it somewhere else before attending? Can I take photos of you with me and my kids?
TD: Here’s how a booksigning works (usually):
When an author/illustrator is promoting their latest book, they appear at a bookstore to speak, read, answer questions, and sign the new book. It’s to promote and share the excitement of their newest creation. (Think of a band touring to promote their new album and you’ve got it.)
Now, this helps the booksellers in that the fans of the guest author/illustrator come to the store and purchase the book through them. In many cases, this is an introduction of the store to the community and people find out that the store not only exists, but has events as well.
The usual rule of thumb is that you CAN bring books from your own collection to have signed, but the bookstore would like you to purchase the newest book (or fill any holes in your collection) from them.
Some pointers we’ve experienced in attending book-signings as fans ourselves:
If you are bringing a book(s) from home, make sure you check in at the front of the store. Usually there is some form or slip they give you indicating that the book(s) you hold are already purchased.
If you are bringing Magic cards, please limit the amount to a handful of your favorite ones.
If you want the book signed as a gift for someone, be sure to get the correct spelling of their name beforehand.
I can’t tell you how sad it makes me when I sign a book for a child and the parent tells me “We’ll save this one so my child doesn’t damage the book.” I make my books for kids of all ages to enjoy. I don’t want them to sit on a shelf and never be loved. It’s just a signature, I’d be happy to sign a new copy if you want down the road, just send it to me.
Bring that camera! I love getting photos of people who cherish my work. Just ask – I’ll take a pic with your little ones.
Of course, all these rules vary from place to place. So you may want to call the store beforehand to answer any questions you may have.
Q: How did you break into the gaming industry?
TD: After graduating art school in the spring of 1992, I began gaming again with college pals, and decided to submit samples of my work to TSR…I was rejected.
Most of what I sent to them was lots and lots of sketches of monsters. I just couldn’t draw enough of them. And they would be just sitting there, floating on a blank sheet of paper (a la the Monster Manual). It was like I threw out all that I had learned in art school about setting, mood and action and was just concerned with re-interpreting their designs.
With some help from my gaming buddies, I then went on to send sketches of player characters (dwarves, elves, hobbits, etc.) to TSR – I was rejected again.
Their first criticism was — nice monsters, where are the people? So, I sent them drawings of the player characters and they felt that they were a little weak. A good friend of mine suggested that I really try to make the characters as well designed and interesting as the monsters, and then it all clicked into place for me.
My last submission had the player characters doing things: fighting monsters, finding treasure, and exploring environments. Finally, in the fall of 1992, I was asked to illustrate a boxed set for TSR’s Dungeon & Dragons line entitled Dragon Mountain. It had taken me almost a year, and 3 separate submissions, to finally get in.
The following summer I went to the Gen Con Game Fair which is a huge fantasy and gaming convention (at that time) held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, I met with many art directors from various gaming companies and other artists working in the field. After sharing my portfolio there, I was on my way to illustrating many games including Werewolf, Planescape and Changeling.
PS – In 2010, I wrote a short recollection of this time in my life for D&D Art Director, Jon Schindehette’s blog.
Q: Can you give me info on submitting my artwork to Wizards of the Coast?
TD: Working on games like Magic: the Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons is one of the highest paying jobs in the role-playing game industry. Therefore, the competition is stiff. Established fantasy illustrators regularly contribute to these games to keep the art a high quality level. Wizards of the Coast is able to do this by paying competitive fees to these professional artists.
Large companies will occasionally use unknown talent, but they prefer working with established artists. Artists with a reputation for creating great images while meeting deadlines and working well with art direction is what any publisher wants. Quality of your artwork is only part of the equation. A reputable professional demeanor is just as important.
If you are an amateur artist and you are considering getting into the field, perhaps you should set your sights on a smaller company. They may not be able to pay much, but you’ll get published work in your portfolio and begin establishing your reputation as an experienced illustrator.
Try heading to your local fantasy/gaming convention (or the Gen Con Game Fair) and meet with representatives from game publishing companies. These meetings can be very beneficial as contacts can be made and portfolios can be reviewed and fine-tuned to satisfy exactly what the company is looking for.
If you think you have what it takes, most gaming companies have online submission guidelines on their websites. Good luck!