Lynley Stace: ‘It takes two!’

Posted: January 6, 2012 in Friday Guest
Creative Collaboration

In 2011 I wrote and illustrated my first children’s book. My husband, who is a programmer, turned this story into an app for the Apple store. A storybook app can function just like a traditional printed picture book, but an app includes narration, music, sound effects, animation and touch interactivity. The Artifacts  is now a picture book which can be read on iPads, iPod touches and iPhones all over the world.

One year ago this all sounded like gobbledy gook to me. I’d heard a lot of talk about the iPad, but had never actually clapped eyes on one. Then I was given an iPad for Christmas. I started downloading various apps, including storybook apps for our toddler which she really enjoyed. Storybook apps will never replace traditional books, nor will any narration capture the joy of a parent and child sharing a reading experience, but I was suddenly spared the burden of reading Goldilocks And The Three Bears ten times per day. The app could read it for her when I had gone crazy from talking about porridge and, even at the age of two, she could work the iPad entirely by herself. I was pretty impressed with a device so intuitive to use, so I wanted to have a go at creating one of those storybook apps myself. Enthusiasm aside, I had no idea where to start.

At the same time, Dan was interested in learning how to code in Obj-C, and had been looking around for a new project to do in his spare time. Suddenly it became clear: instead of me working independently on various writing projects and him coding retro games of an evening, we could pool our enthusiasms and work on something together! I still don’t know why it took so long for us to work out that’s what we should be doing, but better late than never!

Finding People To Work With

Dan and I happen to be married, and we are unusually fortunate to have complementary but distinct interests which lead to the creation of an app.

The great thing about the Internet, though, is that you don’t have to be living in the same house as your collaborator, nor even in the same country. There’s video conferencing and email and live chats. It would be quite feasible to find collaborators living in the opposite hemisphere and still work closely together. (It’s amazing how often Dan and I just emailed each other or adjusted a shared Google doc rather than get off a chair to leave a nice, warm room and walk all the way down to the other’s study area. When working together on a project, physical proximity might be overrated!)

Chatrooms/Bulletin Boards/Forums

Dan was brand new to the Apple world so, like me, he has made extensive use of forums – me, art forums; Dan, programming forums. Places where you can pose questions and search archives are an invaluable resource. It’s all about knowing where to go and which questions to ask. The more specific the community, the better.You can make some surprising connections.

For example, Dan met film and game composer  Chris Hurn on a gaming forum a few years ago, where Chris expressed interest in composing music for indie developers. I’m not sure if Chris is a gamer as well as a musician, but it was with foresight that he approached the gaming world to offer his services. Sometimes it’s worth visiting forums which are outside our regular haunts. Writers looking for illustrators may do well to visit art forums, for instance.

Chris has composed superb music for The Artifacts. (You can download and listen to it here.) I’m so pleased at the difference his soundtrack made to the final product. That one chance encounter – when Dan and Chris just happened to be on the same forum at around the same time – has been one of the most serendipitous yet. You just never know where you’re going to find great people to work with.

A Few Thoughts On Social Networking

I don’t remember how I first met most of the people I now know online – people who have helped in the specifics of writing, illustration, usability testing and promotion. The most valuable resource lately has been twitter. More specifically: making use of twitter to find people with similar interests, then following them and their lists. Next, talking to people you don’t know and waiting to see who talks back. That, in my opinion, is the best use of twitter. That, and inviting yourself into established real-time chats by making use of hashtags. It can sometimes feel like everybody on twitter is just trying to sell you something, but twitter can be so much more valuable than that. It’s the people I have met via twitter who keep me going back to it. I was very lucky to find an established community of storybook app developers already on there. They’ve since directed me to other places on the Internet where they chat in more detail and less publicly. I wouldn’t have known where to go otherwise. Yet I hear a lot of negativity about twitter: always from people who aren’t doing it right or who have never tried it themselves. Whatever your thoughts regarding social media, I guess you just have to go where your community is.

Once you’ve found your collaborators, there are many benefits to be had from working with others:

GIVING UP IS NO LONGER AN OPTION

When you decide to work with a partner, you’ve brought a formality to the project which might never have existed had you soldiered on alone. You’ve made a commitment to each other.

DISCUSSION BUILDS RESILIENCE

When you’ve worked with a partner, you’ve already had extended discussions about every little decision along the way. So by the time your masterpiece hits the public, you both have a clear vision of what you’ve tried to achieve. Such clarity is vital because everyone’s got an opinion on your work. Reviewers bring their own set of expectations to your project, so you need to know exactly what it is you stand for, and by extension, you’ll know exactly what you don’t stand for.

COLLABORATORS MAKE YOU LOOK EVEN MORE TALENTED THAN YOU ALREADY ARE!

At least this is how it should work, if you’re working with the right people. There were numerous times throughout this project when I was surprised at how much better the page looked after Dan had worked his programming magic on it. Dan also brought his own quirky sense of humour to the story, and there are few things more satisfying than seeing your own work improved by someone else. I imagine this is what it’s like for a novelist whose work has been expertly edited, and is something self-publishing authors may miss out on. This is why I’d recommend working with collaborators at some stage of any artistic project, even if the project is essentially your own.

LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER

I learnt from Dan in unexpected ways.

As Dan puts it, I am ‘untainted by the corporate world’, which simply means I haven’t the first clue how large projects get done. Dan, on the other hand, has been working in development teams his entire adult life. I learnt from him the psychology of project management.

One such concept is ‘scope creep’, which I had not heard before, but recognised immediately. I’m definitely prone to scope creep, which means a longterm project gets bigger and bigger until it’s no longer manageable and I throw in the towel. Sometimes during this project, when I had a wonderful new idea for a page, Dan would say, ‘Nup. We’re not going there. That’s a classic case of scope creep*. He was usually right. I even threw it back at him a couple of times. The psychological traps are always more obvious when someone else is there to point them out.

HOLDING THE OTHER ACCOUNTABLE

Dan and I are married so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s fair to say we know them even better now.

We both knew that I’m easily distracted, and tend to struggle to finish the final ten percent of anything. I was constantly getting great(!) new ideas for our next project long before finishing this one. But I’m never short of ideas, so we both knew this was going to happen. Dan has refused to discuss these new projects with me in detail. He has a very methodical way of working, and I knew from assembling furniture with him that he won’t worry about the extra, weird looking screw until he actually gets to step 9.3, at which point it will be needed, or not. This sequential manner of working has been beneficial for someone like me, who can flit around having fun while never finishing anything.

Like many programmers, Dan is very literal in his interpretation of everything, but I’ve studied just enough programming to know that this is probably because he spends all day translating human language to be understood by the most literal-minded thing on the face of the planet: a computer. I therefore speak to Dan in the most detailed and specific language I can muster, because the programmer has a difficult job.

Respect has been an important part of holding the other accountable, because communicating was possibly the biggest challenge of all. When we started this project, I had an entire interactive book inside my head, but lacked the language to describe to Dan exactly how it should work. However, we have made up our own language. It includes gesticulating, scribbling on paper and comical sound effects.

PERFECTIONIST TENDENCIES ARE MODERATED

If you tend towards perfectionism you might identify when I say that it’s hard to know when to let things go sometimes. I am perfectionist in some things but not in others (like most perfectionists, I think). Dan is the same with his programming, but has learnt to deal with this tendency after years of working to deadline in the workplace. We both told each other when good enough was good enough. Also, I think everyone is a perfectionist in their own specific area, and when it comes to creative work we can be a little hard on ourselves. It’s nice to have a non-specialist tell you it’s okay to move on because what you’ve accomplished is just fine. Especially when you know for certain that this particular non-specialist cares as much as you do about the project, so can’t possibly be dishing out platitudes. That’s what got this app finished to deadline, this year, rather than in 2027.

AND… WE CAN LEGITIMATELY REFER TO OURSELVES AS ‘WE’!

As in, ‘We create high quality interactive stories for young readers.’ This will always sound more impressive and permanent than ‘I’, even if it is just the two of us!

Finally, if you don’t feel it strictly necessary to find a creative collaborator of your own, you can always do what good fiction writers do well: imagine one up.

…imagine that instead of a little kid, there’s a long-necked, good-natured Dr. Seuss character down [in the depths of your mind], grim with concentration and at the same time playing. He cranes his head toward the sound of the characters talking, but not like a court reporter, more like somebody sitting alone at an adjacent table, trying not to pry but wanting to take it all in. You may want to come up with an image or a metaphor for this other part of you that is separate from your rational conscious mind, this other person with whom you can collaborate. This may help you feel less alone.

* from Bird By Bird: Some instructions on writing and life by Annie Lamott

***

If you would like to follow our progress, we’d appreciate a ‘like’ at Slap Happy Larry on Facebook.

If you own an Apple device (iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch) and would like to see for yourself how our app turned out, you can download The Artifacts from the iTunes Store.

If you have specific questions about the technical and logistical side of publishing your picturebook as an app, feel free to contact Lynley or Dan at  admin@slaphappylarry.com.

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Comments
  1. What a fantastic article and a fantastic idea. Very inspiring.

  2. Stace says:

    Also, big thanks to you Sue – for casting your designer’s eye over the main menu page. Creative collaboration at its best!

  3. Wow, Lynley, I had no idea! What a brilliant project. And what a brilliant partner, too…great post.

  4. Inspired! thanks for this

  5. […] Who are you and where do you work? We’re a husband/wife team, and call ourselves Slap Happy Larry. This is actually ironic, since neither of us could be described as ‘Slap Happy’ when it comes to this kind of work. There’s me, Dan, I’m the coder. I have an IT related day job and do this in the evening for fun. Lynley is the other half of the team. She does an amazing job with the story and art. Working and living together has its challenges, but can also be really powerful. Lynley wrote a blog article about that very topic. […]

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