The basic idea: Dinosaur Firefighters started with my editor suggesting the title, and its predecessor, Dinosaur Police was just the same. So I needed to come up with a story to fit it! I've gotten into a habit of running story ideas by Philip Reeve; we're often on the road to events and this time we were meeting up for a drink the evening before school assemblies the following day. We sat down and talked through possible storylines and came up with the basic plot. (Thanks, Philip!) He even sketched out some possible characters, a couple of which you might recognise from the book.
Character design: After that, I went back to my studio desk and started sketching out all the dinosaurs that might be in the Dinoville fire brigade. I like to post them right over my desk, so I can refer to them for continuity as I work.
I wanted to make Dipsy big and blue, and not obviously girly (I mean, eyelashes aren't really a big thing in Dinosaur biology anyway. You can read a bit more about the ideas behind Dipsy the Diplodocus in a previous blog post.)
Thumbnail roughs: The next step was figuring out how to fill each 'double-page spread'. (A 'spread' is what editors call the two pages facing each other.) In a lot of ways, knowing the exact number of pages simplifies things a lot, I just have to work out how to make the story fill these little boxes. This is when I think about the story's pacing, create a sense of story rhythm, and create build-ups to surprises when people turn the pages. Sometimes I write the text first and then do these, but this time I did very, very basic scribbles to help me figure out how to structure the story. (No one would be able to work out what I've drawn except for me.)
First draft text: Now I've worked out roughly how much room I have for the story, I write a text and send it off to my editor, Pauliina Malinen. She and designer Strawberrie Donnelly look it over, and then we meet up so they can give their suggestions. We also do more minor edits via e-mail, which you can see here in the margins.
That's Strawberrie on the left and Pauliina on the right.
Pencil roughs: I usually spend more time making more detailed thumbnail roughs, but this time I went straight into drawing full-size pencil roughs. Actually, at 110%, so there would be a little bit of wiggle room if later we needed to resize the pages slightly.
After I send them to Strawberrie, she decides if the pictures tell the story effectively enough and gets back to me. With this picture, she didn't think Dipsy was running fast enough, or looking excited enough, so she redrew the picture slightly to show me what she was talking about. It was a good call, Dipsy looked much more enthusiastic after Strawberrie had tweaked her a bit.
Final artwork, inking: After Pauliina and Strawberrie approved the pencil roughs, I went ahead and started tracing over them with a dip pen and India ink, using my lightbox. (I once showed a picture like this on a children's web forum and got soundly criticised; they said I wasn't really drawing, I was just tracing, ha ha.) I like tracing rather than drawing over the pencil and having to rub it out. For one thing, there's less chance of the ink smudging. Also, I don't have to stick slavishly to the pencil line, I can simply use it as a basic guideline. (I learned this tip from Quentin Blake.)
Final artwork, painting: Then I start watercolouring the line with coloured inks. I have to build up the colour gradually in places, to add volume, so it doesn't look like a colouring book. I use 300 gram hot press watercolour paper which is thick and stiff enough so I don't have to stretch it in advance.
And here you can see the painted page next to the pencil rough! You can also see the 'NEE NAR NEE NAR!' lettering which I drew on a separate piece of paper. I never write directly on to the artwork for two reasons: in case we need to change the words, and so foreign publishers can change the text for their editions in other languages.
I leave a lot of little bits of kitchen roll lying about, and these off-cuts of watercolour paper where I prime my paintbrush to make sure I've mixed the colours just right and check there's not too much water on the brush tip. (The black streaks are where I've wiped off my metal inking nib.)
Here are a few more peeks at finished artwork!
Cover design: Strawberrie had several ideas for a strong cover image and after our meeting, I kept the paper she'd drawn them on. I love it that my publishers let me do the cover last; it can take a whole book to really feel confident about drawing the characters, and I want the cover to be able to pick up on details I might not have thought about at the beginning of illustrating the book. I've had earlier publishers ask me to do the cover first thing, for marketing purposes, but I'm never as happy with it when I do it in that order. The cover ought to be the strongest image of the book and it takes awhile for me to work up to it.
Here are all the painted pages together in a stack on my desk!
Artwork delivery: When I'm all finished, I wrap up the pages in plastic to keep them dry, then take them into Scholastic. I always get paranoid I'm accidentally going to leave them on the train or something; that would be so awful, I can't even contemplate how awful that would be. I'm glad I don't have to post the artwork, it would be an extra level of scariness.
And here we are at Scholastic Towers, otherwise known as Euston House, right next to Euston station in central London. It's always fun taking it in; everyone gathers around and oo's and ah's over the pages, and usually some of the publicists run over to have a look. I feel very relieved and proud to be finished.
Production: There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes at Scholastic, so the book doesn't come out straight away - often I have to wait for nearly a year. During this time, Strawberrie sends the artwork for scanning, then she formats the pages and adds the text. We go back and forth checking things, and I might make a few digital tweaks to the pages. (This time the artwork didn't need much tweaking so Strawberrie took my picture-by-picture comments and did it all for me.) This time she e-mailed the digital files to Malaysia and the printer created the books there, and shipped them back. I get some printed proof versions and Strawberrie checks them with me, to make sure we both like how the paper and colour have turned out.
Arrival: Then I get a buzz on the doorbell and my Author Copies of the books ARRIVE! Such an exciting moment!
My agent, Jodie Hodges, gets pretty excited, too! She's been with me right from the beginning, working out my scheduling with other books and using her eagle eye to look over the contract. Thanks, Jodie!
Since Philip helped me so much right at the beginning, I dedicated the book to him! And I'd read early chapters of his book, Station Zero (the third in the Railhead trilogy), so he dedicated that one jointly to me and his wife (also named Sarah!).
And I got in Pauliina and Strawberrie's names, too! I remember with an earlier book, they were a bit worried about doing this because it wasn't strictly Scholastic format. But making a picture book is very much a team effort, as you can see, and I feel a lot better about it if I can credit them somewhere in the book.
Readers: This stage is about YOU! The book isn't truly finished until it's been looked at, read and listened to by readers! I love it when people show me how they're enjoying the book and the other materials I've created. Here's the first photo that came in on Twitter, of this happy-looking kid colouring the Dinoville fire brigade. Click here if you'd like to download and print some of the Dinosaur Firefighters activity sheets!
Sales: If you like, you can buy Dinosaur Firefighters or ask for it at your local library! Here's a Page 45 link, a Foyles link, Waterstones link, Scholastic shop, and Amazon. If you're an independent shop and have a direct link to buy Dinosaur Firefighters on your website, please let me know so I can link to you! Hopefully lots of libraries will stock it, too. (Authors love libraries; besides being great for the whole community, we actually get a little bit of money each time people check out a book, through the Public Lending Right scheme managed by the British Library!)
Events: I have several events lined up; find out if I'm in your area!
Thanks for reading! :)