The highlights and lowlights of creating a 384 page art journal novel

Image: A double page spread of the inside of Future Girl / The Words in My Hands. On the left side is an artwork of a girl holding a rabbit. She wears a long sleeved blue dress with a white collar and her long, wavy black hair is blowing in the wind to her left. The background is blue paint with pink roses floating around her. Her eyes are blue, cheeks blushing and her tiny lips are tinted red. The left side page has a painted yellow background with blue and red roses in the margins. A small piece of brown paper collaged over the background to form a heading with the text, ‘TUESDAY 14 JULY’. The page also shows the text content of Future Girl book page 62. There is collaged brown text paper on the side and splashes of green, red and pink paint on the borders.

A friend of mine asked me, what were the best and worst parts of creating my recent book, titled Future Girl (in Australia) and The Words in My Hands (in North America). It’s a 384 page book of full colour art that is the art journal of 16-year-old Piper, a Deaf girl who lives in near future Melbourne just as peak oil hits. I thought I’d share my answer with you.

I wrote the book entirely from scratch three times, as well as doing multiple edits on each of these drafts. One of the lowlights was attempting to process feedback from my editor, Elise Jones, after rewriting the book for the second time. The manuscript came back to me with over a thousand comments in it, stipulating the changes the publishers were suggesting. The requests often felt contradictory, such as:

overall the book is too long, please make it shorter.’

versus

‘this is so interesting – please show this unfold (in a scene, with nuances/meanings implied) instead of telling it (with meanings stated/explained or as an info dump’), which is less engaging for the reader.’

One of the suggestions was to remove what for me was the central theme of the book, peak oil, and focus on other aspects of the story instead. I can see how every single one of these comments had a sound rationale behind it and formed part of a strategy to make the book stronger. But at the time I was very sick from arsenic and lead poisoning and my brain wasn’t functioning well, so it was an overwhelming task to try and assimilate all the information and work out a game plan going forward.

It took me an entire two years to process everything and decide how to go forward. I took some leaps of faith and decided to keep peak oil as a central theme, and as soon as I made that decision, suddenly I could see my way. I just had to write a manuscript that would convince my publishers. 

I rewrote the book again from scratch, and this time I had this nagging voice in my head with every word I wrote saying, ‘It’s too long! It’s too long!’ But I ignored it and ploughed onwards, trying to incorporate the rest of their feedback, and taking steps to mitigate their concerns about peak oil. In the end, although I submitted a manuscript at double their desired word length, and fully about peak oil, they loved it! Phew!

Elise also worked out a clever way to shorten the manuscript again by cutting an entire thread of the story, which ended up making it so much stronger. It was hard to let go of that thread – there was a really awesome character in there who I just loved! But I’ll keep her for another book.

As for the best parts, well there were a few…

Making 384 pages of art is a surefire way to hone your design, composition and technical skills, both with art-making and Photoshop. I am thrilled with this. Here are just some of the pages I made for the Australian edition:

Image: Artwork of two printed book pages with different shades of pastel colours of yellow, olive green, pink, blue & brown. The left page has paintings of blue and pink roses in the corners, and flower doodles done in black pen. In the centre is a rubber stamp in a box that says ‘This book belongs to..’ It has been filled in with handwriting saying ‘Piper McBride. PRIVATE! (Do not read.)’ The right page has pink roses at the top. Text below the roses says, ‘WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE’ and text content from Future Girl book, page 1. It also has a black and white border on the left side of the right page and the background is a collage of pink and brown text paper. There is a hand drawn doodle of a flower in the margin.
Image: Artwork of two printed book pages with collaged patterned papers in different shades of blue, green, brown, pink and yellow pastel colours. The left page has a piece of torn brown paper collaged over the background with the text heading, ‘SATURDAY 27 JUNE’. It has red and pink roses on top. There is a sculpture of a frozen Charlotte doll in the bottom left corner and light pink flowers on the middle bottom. It also has the text content of Future Girl book page 32 in the centre. The right page has a border of different kinds of pink and red flowers with a black spraypainted curlicue. It has the text content of Future Girl book page 33 in the centre.
Image: Artwork of a boy with blond, wavy, medium length hair standing on the right side of the page. He is wearing a grayish brown turtle neck sweater and both hands are inside the pockets of his tight black jeans. He wears large black boots. The page is surrounded with black line drawings of bicycles on top of a grungy watercolour background of bluish green, black and yellow. The boy has a speech bubble saying, ‘Your hearing aids are whistling.’ The left page is black text handwritten with a text saying ‘On the wall, someone written: Imagine: if the GDP was replaced with a contentment index.’ Below that is the text content of the book page 34.

Once the book was put together, I re-read it for a final check. I hadn’t read it for a long time and I had fresh eyes. One of the scenes I’d written about Deafness gave me goosebumps and made me quite teary – I just couldn’t believe I’d written it. In fact, I felt that way about the whole book. I set out to write the book I wanted to read, and in the end, I got to read it and found myself fully immersed and emotionally moved. Wow.

Receiving the hard copy of the book for the first time, I cried. Eight years in the making and finally I got to hold it. It was perfect. The paper, the textures, the colours, the weight, everything. I am so in love with this book. And it struck me that if I had not created it and was seeing it for the first time, I would want to cancel my whole life for a month just to dive into it and absorb all that beautiful art.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is futuregirl_words_low_res.jpg
Image: Two similar book covers. On the left is Future Girl (Australian edition) and on the right is The Words in my Hands (North American edition), both by Asphyxia. They show a girl with long, black, wavy hair. She wears a gray sleeveless top and holds a magenta pencil and paint brush in her fist, with a light blue paint dripping from the brush. She has large black cross over her right ear. Her eyes are green and her lips red. The background shows drawings of buildings. The left background is green, brown and teal textured paint; the right background is teal, pink and ochre textured paint. On both covers is a review by Amie Kaufman, a New York Times bestselling author, which says, ‘Brilliantly imaginative, totally immersive…’

If you’d like to read it, get your copy here if you’re in Australia, and here if you’re in North America.

1 thought on “The highlights and lowlights of creating a 384 page art journal novel

  1. Pingback: Sunday Lowdown #171 – Grab the Lapels

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