Editor's Corner: Q&A with Alayne Kay Christian
Welcome Alayne Kay Christian, acquisitions editor and creative director for Blue Whale Press, to my blog. I'm excited for writers and illustrators to dive into our Q & A.
Thank you, Manju, for inviting me to answer Kidlit Creatives member’s questions.
And thanks to the members for the great questions.
Q. Vivian Kirkfield: Alayne, wearing your editor hat, what is the first thing that stands out to you when you receive a submission? Is it the cover letter? (and do you read that first or just pick up the manuscript and go back to the letter later?) Is it the topic/subject of the story? (and why?) Or is it the quality of the writing?
A. The very first thing that stands out to me is if the person followed submission guidelines by pasting their manuscript and cover letter into the email. The reason for this is that I won’t open attachments anymore.
As far as the properly submitted work, I go directly to the manuscript. I don’t read the cover letter unless the manuscript compels me to do so. I’ve found that the cover letter can influence me, and I would rather let the story writing speak for itself. If I like a story, but there’s something I’m not quite getting, I’ll read the cover letter to gain a little more insight into the author’s vision. Also, if I’m interested in the manuscript, I’ll read the cover letter to learn more about the author.
When I talk about cover letters influencing me, I’ve found that they can set expectations that are often not realized once the manuscript is read. Some examples follow: The topic might appeal to me, but then the writing doesn’t. The cover letter writing could be very impressive, but the manuscript, not so much. The cover letter could (unintentionally) misrepresent the actual story, which can lead to confusion and a sense that perhaps the writer doesn’t know what their story is truly about. But my number one reason for not reading the cover letter is because I want to be surprised by the story being told in the manuscript, which really goes back to letting the writing speak for itself.
For me, the quality of the writing is the first thing that stands out. If the voice doesn’t capture me from the beginning, I will most likely pass on the manuscript. The opening lines must grab me. This isn’t to say that if they don’t grab me, I stop reading. I will continue reading because sometimes potentially good stories just begin in the wrong place. But usually by the time I’m halfway through the manuscript, if the writing, topic, characters, plot (or whatever the strength of the story) hasn’t left me wanting more, it’s probably not a story for me.
I’ve read stories where I thought the topic was great, but the execution didn’t do it justice. I’ve read stories where I thought the writing voice was fabulous, but the topic paled in
comparison. I’ve read stories where the characters were interesting, but they weren’t developed fully.
In addition to first lines that hook me and middles that compel me to keep reading, the ending has to satisfy me by wowing me, leaving me with a sweet aw moment, or leaving me wondering why the heck didn’t I see what was coming, or maybe just leaving me thinking about the story long after I’ve finished reading it. The best stories are the ones that stick with me. I often think about all the stories I’ve critique over the years. There are a handful of stories that have stuck with me for six years or more. The stories weren’t ready for publication, but they each had something special that made them memorable to me. I think in all cases, it was a unique or fun idea that gave the stories staying power.
I believe in all of the books we’ve acquired, none were perfect as submissions. However, there was something compelling enough about each manuscript that it was worth my time to work with the author to build on both the strengths and the weaknesses to make the stories ready to publish. So, what sold me in the books we’ve acquired? A short list would be as follows: topic, writing voice, characters’ voices, a strong beginning and/or ending, lots of page-turners, strong plot and emotional core (could be humor, heart tugging, or anything in between). Also, they are all stories with purpose. I look for purposeful stories. If they aren’t purposeful, the rest doesn’t really matter. Although, once in a great while, the purpose might simply be to entertain, but that is a rare exception. So far, out of all the books we’ve acquired, one might be described as simply entertaining.
Q. Manju: In a previous 2-part interview with you, I asked about your role in and vision for Blue Whale Press. Currently, as an imprint of Clear Fork Publishing, how have your role and vision changed?
A. The vision remains the same. But my role has changed because I’ve taken on more responsibility in some areas, and I’m learning to relinquish control in other areas. Before Clear Fork Publishing, in addition to acquisitions and creative directing, I played a major role in running the business with Steve’s support. Now I would say my job is to find the stories and then the illustrator and make sure the book is the absolute best it can be when it’s released. In addition to finding the story and illustrator, I still work as editor, and I still oversee and direct the illustrators. But now, I also have the pleasure of exercising my skills in layout, design, and typography while I work to bring quality books to life. So, the day-to-day operations, among other things, are slowly moving over to Clear Fork, and my job is gradually becoming more focused on book production.
Q. Antoinette Marlow: I am an illustrator. I have submitted my portfolio to some publishers. What should I draw to be considered?
I imagine opinions about the content of illustrators’ portfolios will be like most things in publishing . . . subjective. I believe answers from publishers or art directors will vary depending on publishers’ needs and preferences. But in my mind, showing an ability to illustrate both animals and humans is important. In addition, an ability to capture various ages is good because some books are for babies, some for toddlers and pre-school, and some for kindergarten and up. Many plot lines include characters of multiple ages. Of course, capturing a range of diverse characters in your illustrations would be smart. Not all illustrators do the above—these are just things I look for.
Recently, I was attracted to a portfolio where the illustrator demonstrated strong skills in showing body language and facial expressions to show mood and emotion in both animals and humans. This was important to me because of the book I’m working on. However, I would think that it would be an excellent thing to showcase in any portfolio. I usually look for an ability of the illustrator to present a variety of perspectives and an ability to show characters in action. A picture book with varying perspectives and lots of action is more exciting than static characters and cookie-cutter perspectives throughout. And of course, if you are interested in illustrating for chapter books, it’s important to show your ability to create solid line drawings.
There are different schools of thought regarding portfolios. Some people think it is best to show that you have a range of styles, and that might work in some cases. My personal thought is to develop a signature style the best you can. If you work in different mediums, I like it when illustrators showcase, for example, their digital work separate from the traditional or mixed medium work, and so on. My recommendation would be to keep exploring and asking questions, but also to ask around in various forums. However, the absolute best way to see what successful illustrators do is to look at their books. Do they have a signature style? Or do they vary in style? If you can find online portfolios of up-and-comers or established illustrators, it would be good to study their portfolios. You’ll find some links below of some illustrators who came to mind for me. Of course, it will take you time to build your portfolio. These people have obviously been at it for years, but at least you can see what kind of variety they offer in characters and scenes, and how consistent they are in style, etc.
Based on Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s books, I’d say she has a signature style. Yet, you will find on her website that she talks about her preferred style but also showcases a variety of styles.
You’ll find that Dawn Cardona showcases different art forms, but her illustrations demonstrate a consistent style that seems to flow through all of her artistic efforts.
Stephanie Fizer Coleman seems to have a pretty consistent style. She doesn’t have a lot in her portfolio, but don’t forget when looking at portfolios to try to find their Instagram link. Those links usually lead to a lot more examples of the illustrator’s work. I look at Instagram after portfolios anytime that the illustrator offers a link.
I love Michael Roberston’s portfolio because of how he organizes it by type of characters, etc. But you will notice a consistent style here, too.
Polina Gortman has illustrated two books for Blue Whale Press, with one of being my latest release THE WEED THE WOKE CHRISTMAS and the other being RANDALL AND RANDALL. You will see that she is developing a signature style.
Milanka Reardon has illustrated two books for Blue Whale Press with one being my 2020 release AN OLD MAN AND HIS PENGUIN and the other being WHO WILL? WILL YOU? Her illustration portfolio demonstrates a pretty consistent style, but her website showcases some of her other artistic abilities as well.
Melizza Chernov illustrated Blue Whale Press’s A HORN IS BORN, and she will be illustrating one of our 2022 releases. Here style isn’t super consistent, but she demonstrates enough skill that we hired her. When I first found her portfolio, I was looking for someone who can get creative with perspective, and now that A HORN IS BORN is published, I guarantee you I didn’t go wrong with the choice. I believe Melizza is really coming into her own style wise with that book. It is fabulous! And I believe that’s what will happen for you. As you grow as an illustrator, your portfolio will change and grow, too. And eventually, you will know your style and be very clear what to include in your portfolio.
Thanks so much, Alayne!
Alayne Kay Christian is the acquisitions editor and creative director for Blue Whale Press, an imprint of Clear Fork Publishing. She’s an award-winning children’s book author and the creator and teacher of a picture book writing course Art of Arc. Her published works include the Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy chapter book series, and picture books Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa, An Old Man and His Penguin: How Dindim Made João Pereira de Souza an Honorary Penguin, and The Weed That Woke Christmas: The Mostly True Tale of the Toledo Christmas Weed. Cowboy Trouble (the second book in the Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy series) and her fourth picture book, Faith Beneath the Bridge are planned for 2021 releases. Born in the Rockies, raised in Chicago, and now a true-blue Texan, Alayne’s writing shares her creative spirit and the kinship to nature and humanity that reside within her heart. To learn more about Alayne visit https://alaynekaychristianauthor.com/