Years ago, when I came to one of my very first SCBWI meetings in Austin (long before I had a finished book), I met a group of talented writers, some of whom became critique buddies and friends. One of those was Laura Jennings, whose skill as an artist and writer impressed me immensely! (She had to draw doodles for my kids at many of those first meet-ups. And when I say kids, I mean me, since these doodles are still hanging next to my writing desk.)
Beginning today, Laura is launching a Kickstarter to self-publish her fully-illustrated, full color book, The Mark of the Conifer, in multiple formats. She’s worked for seven years on the research, writing, and illustrating of this fascinating story, a dinosaur fantasy epic in the vein of Watership Down. If you’d like to support the Kickstarter, click here!
And now let’s go into the process with Laura Jennings:
What was your writing process for this book?
Well, the book took seven years to write, so I had a few false starts. I think both times I got about fifty or a hundred pages in and froze up. Once I stopped thinking about the story as a dinosaur story, and started thinking of it in terms of an epic fantasy, things got a lot easier. The characters were dinosaurs, but they started falling neatly into epic fantasy archetypes: the heroic knight, the rebellious princess, the bard, the evil chancellor, and so on. The story adheres to a fairly typical high fantasy plot, but I hope the world-building and unique characters kind of obscures that and makes it unique.
I know you are an artist. Did you use your artistic skills to help you visualize your characters?
Yes and no, in a weird kind of way. Even though I’m a huge dinosaur buff, the characters actually BEING dinosaurs was hard to write. Mostly because I wanted to strike a balance between the characters being animalistic, as opposed to just humans in dinosaur skins, but then that ran the risk of making things too emotionally distant to the reader. I constantly agonized over “Who is going to care about these things?” until I did a small 10 page comic that encapsulated the big emotional concerns of the main character’s family. And I got a huge response from the online community, and that alleviated a lot of my concerns. It made me realize that even simple concerns can hold huge weight for a reader if you do it right.
At the same time, going back to me being a dinosaur buff, even I can’t visualize “He was a ceratopsian. She was an Acrocanthosaurus. A member of Thyreophora appeared.” I worked on creating dinosaur-species language that was accessible to the average reader, like The Land Before Time with “long-necks” and “spike-tails”. And that was why I wanted things to be illustrated, because I knew people needed “Oh, THAT’S what they look like!” And for me, that’s why I love having art as part of my work, because I have that moment, too, the very first time I draw a character. “Oh, hey, THAT’S what they look like!”
Did you do research for it?
Oh, definitely. I was originally inspired to do the story because I went to the Utah Museum of Prehistoric Life in Salt Lake City in 2007. I saw real dinosaur bones for the first time in my life, even though I’d been in love with dinosaurs as a kid. It was breath-taking. I touched the actual vertebrae of a Diplodocus, a Jurassic sauropod. So the actual, real remains of something one hundred and forty-five million years old! I was so excited. But I had about a 15 year gap in my dinosaur knowledge. All my books were from the early 90s.
All the science had changed. Certain dinosaurs had been confirmed to have feathers. They’d found soft tissue of dinosaurs, been able to chemically map out colors, done CT scans of dinosaur braincases, found pregnant specimens. And even the atmosphere was basically a totally different planet: you had a much higher carbon and oxygen rate, which allowed these creatures to get huge. The Earth was actually in the prime of its life during the time of the dinosaurs, and as it’s aged we’ve lost a very high oxygen content, which is why things are smaller today.
So yes. So much research. And I loved every minute of it.
In your research, did you discover anything that surprised you?
Paleontologists do not like to talk to you if you are not 8 years old. And that really surprised me. Because I’d been in grade school, and I’d written a paleontologist on the back of my spelling paper. And he wrote me back! And was like “You can totally be a paleontologist when you grow up!”
So fast forward some twenty-odd years later, and I couldn’t get people to give me the time of day. The one guy that actually spoke to me was the curator at the Utah Museum of Prehistoric Life. I offered to do some scientific illustrations for some college students, even, and no dice. I attended a lecture, and I had emailed this lady again and again about dinosaur questions, and it turned out the speaker was her! And then we talked, and she was like “Hey, have you been emailing me!?” And I was like “Uh, noooooo! No! Definitely not me!”
I also don’t think dinosaurs are taken very seriously in a scientific sense. When I was looking for updated books during my research, I went to a Barnes and Noble. And I asked the help desk for dinosaur books, and the lady made her hands into little T. rex claws and went “Raarr!” And I kind of stared at her, and then she started leading me towards the kid’s section! And I said “No, I mean scientific publications.” And she says “We don’t have that kind of thing here.”
So when I hear people say “Dinosaurs are for kids” I want to say something like “Really? Do you think the Coelurosaurian properties of the Tyrannosaurid clade means that their sister genus of Carcharodontosaurid possessed protofeathers?”
Tell us a little more about the nuts and bolts of self-publishing.
Self-publishing is so easy compared to the traditional route, but you have so much more responsibility to make the book the best you can. You don’t have an agent or a publisher holding your hand or quality-checking you, which is both freeing and intimidating. I’m still trying for traditional publication; this book went through two round of rewrites and queries over about two years, and everyone kind of said “You’re a very good writer. We have no market for this.” Add the stigma of being illustrated YA, and on and on. You have to do your legwork, but I think the Internet makes it a lot easier to find your markets. Everyone has their bubbles. If you go to a dinosaur toy forum, dinosaur toys with scientific accuracy are the axis upon which the world turns for those people. It’s not hard to pitch anything dinosaur related to them, but you have to know the thing even exists in the first place.
A lot of things the traditional publisher takes care of, like editing and formatting, you end up having to pay for, which is why I started the Kickstarter. Those things are so critical to a good, readable book you don’t want to leave it to chance or amateurs. And I know a lot of people do, which is a real pitfall for self-publishing.
If I had to give advice to anyone about self-publishing, it would be to get critiqued and get critiqued hard. You can hear it from people who care about your writing, or you can hear it from angry Amazon and Goodreads reviewers, and there’s no question about who will be nicer.
What was fun?
Using my art as an excuse to buy a whole bunch of dinosaur models for reference was pretty nice.
What was most challenging?
Oh, man. The art. Hands down, the art. I was painting for months. But once I really realized this was happening and had to get in gear, all the shoulder demons kind of got blown away by “GET THIS DONE.” Traditional publishing gives you that validation because you have someone else saying “This is good enough.” You don’t have anymore room for doubt or “Is this good enough?” when it comes to self-publishing, and a Kickstarter deadline. Giving in to doubt tanks the project, and if you want other people to put money up, you can’t have them doubting you, too.
Also attempting to pitch “It’s scientifically accurate dinosaur fantasy for YA, no wait hear me out” was about as much fun as you’d think it’d be.
Is there anything you would do differently the next time?
Probably space my art out a little more, and have a bit more structure to it. I knew I was taking a plunge by doing a Kickstarter, but that I’d learn a lot. I still have a lot to learn before everything is over, and I look forward to applying it to my next book.
What project are you working on next?
I intend to query for a historical fiction book, set during Constantine the Great’s last war and told from the POV of a herding dog. And I also have a YA Western-themed steampunk/magicpunk book that needs rewrites before querying. And I have another steampunk with dinosaur riders in the works, naturally.
Share three authors from whom you drew inspiration/authors whose work encouraged you to write a genre-mixing novel!
I definitely drew inspiration from James Gurney, the author and artist of Dinotopia. The man has been my idol, I adore his work, and to be able to do something so similar to him but uniquely mine makes my inner child squee. I also liked Raptor Red by Robert Bakker, who is a world-renowned paleontologist, and wrote a book with dinosaurs that were emotional but animalistic. And Clare Bell wrote The Named series (Ratha’s Creature, Clan Ground, Ratha and Thistle-Chaser, and Ratha’s Courage) about prehistoric cats called nimravids (!!!) who are sentient and struggling with their power and loneliness. Definitely not a usual kind of book.
I have to admit, MY inner child is squeeing right along with Laura’s! I can’t wait to see this book in finished form. I know it’ll be unique, amazing, and the art will knock everybody’s socks off! Thanks, Laura, and good luck!