Making of White Elephant Surprise (Part One): The Idea

Making of White Elephant Surprise (Part One): The Idea

Whenever a person works on one project for almost three years, you can expect that A LOT of thought would go into making it special — both for the readers and for the person whom the book was written for. In this case, WHITE ELEPHANT SURPRISE was written for and dedicated to my family. (My rather large family as you will see in future installments of this series.) I went to great lengths to make the release of this book as special as I could, and now that all gifts have been received, I can finally share my process and let my readers know about the secret objects hidden among the pages.  

The Story of How It All Began

As you can see in the Author Notes section of the book, I initially came up with the WHITE ELEPHANT SURPRISE idea at a writer meeting.  The leader mentioned the Christmas party the following month we would be having a white elephant gift exchange. It was a term I could not remember ever hearing before, and as she continued to talk about the party, I tried to figure out what a white elephant gift exchange could be.

The only idea that made any sense was finding white elephant trinkets to gift to other people. Kind of like a present scavenger hunt. My imagination went wild trying to think of all the places I could find white elephant figurines, pictures, costume jewelry, and embellishments. I can remember mentally listing off the places where I needed to start. The local super-center, department stores, dollar stores maybe thrift stores. Perhaps the flea market would have a nice white elephant treasure?

And after a few moments of listening to the speaker talking, she circled back around to the gift exchange — this time dropping an important detail she had missed the first time around.

The Let-Down

A white elephant gift exchange was not about exchanging white elephant trinkets, it was about taking something you already have, and is in nice condition, and sharing it with someone else. (Though there are many different versions of this gift-giving tradition.)

I was crushed. All those idea’s racing through my mind… All the different places I could have searched. The prospect of fun, excitement, adventure, and a treasure hunt? It’s no wonder I was a little disappointed as I drove home that night.

A few weeks later, I returned for the Christmas meeting, and I had a great time, but the wonder of my white elephant gift exchange idea wouldn’t let go of my imagination. I knew I had to do something with this idea of searching for white elephants to give as gifts to other people. As a writer, I knew exactly how I would share it.

The Idea

The story swept in and tap danced onto the page somewhere between the end of December 2014 and the beginning of January 2015. In one sitting, I had the bare bones of the story.

Writer First Draft
The First Draft of WHITE ELEPHANT SURPRISE. (The main character’s name was originally Jake.)

I knew from the concept that I wanted it to be a picture book for kids between the ages of 5 and 8. I had never been lead to write a picture book before, so this was completely new territory for me. Luckily, my youngest child was in this age range, so I did have a leg up due to all the picture books I read to him over the years.

After some general market research, I realized how long it would take to get this book in print if I went the traditional publishing route. I hated the thought of waiting years (possibly forever) to find a traditional publisher to pick up my book. So, I chose self-publication and did more research. I stumbled upon many different prices of illustrators, but in the end, I knew I could not justify the cost when I could find a way to capture my ideas for free.

I hadn’t really drawn since high school, and I even then, my skills were seriously limited. But I decided I would find a way. I would let the process take however long it would take, but at least I knew it would one day be published.

Choosing a Design

The first thing I did, (besides googling how to create a picture book) was to stop by my local libraries and bookstores with a notebook, ruler, and pen in hand. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, pulling out all the books in each section to compare. I spent days measuring them, glancing through the pages to see which formatting, illustration style, writing style, and layout designs I liked best. Every time I visited the libraries I would return with towering stacks of picture books.

In the evenings I would look more carefully at the books I picked and try to figure out why I liked them better than the ones I left behind.

Learning To Art

Once I had a pretty clear idea of the type of book I wanted to create, it was time to start learning how to art again. Something I hadn’t really done since high school. I started learning via Youtube. It was free, and one of my favorite illustrators, Will Terry (found while choosing a design) had a bunch of videos teaching how to draw and use Photoshop to create art. (As of at least recently, he has taken down nearly all of his tutorials, but there are many other talented artist and illustrators still sharing their process on Youtube and other sites, for free.)

I worked my way through his entire video collection, and went on to study many other artists, but realized I still wasn’t progressing the way I wanted to. So, I enrolled in an online art school and started devouring the courses.

I kept editing the manuscript while I practiced my art skills. It was during one of these drafts when I decided to change the little boy’s name from Jake to Billy. By the time I started storyboarding the book (breaking up the story into small thumbnail images), I already had a pretty good idea how I wanted to split up the pages. These images are supposed to be “an idea” page and not perfect. I allowed myself to be as messy as I wanted and drew them using simple shapes on computer paper. This step took about two days.

Sketching It Out

Once I finished the entire book layout, I worked on each of the main character sketches. I have a multitude of pages filled with sketches of elephants, grandmothers, and little Billy’s. I started with Billy’s hair, then moved onto his face shape, and then clothing before tackling the elephant and Grandmother sketches. I worked on these character sketches for about a two weeks.

By Alyssa Mayley

After I was pleased with the way my main characters looked, I began adding more details to the scenes. I did not do this part in order. I just let the idea’s flow and drew them as they came. Again, not caring too much about how good or bad they turned out.

By this point, I had been taking the art lessons on Perspective, Rule of 1/3, Consistency, Color Picking, Values, and much more. I worked on these sketches for a few weeks. As you can see, I still had a very long way to go before I had a product worth selling, but I knew that I would figure it out if I just kept at it.

By Alyssa Mayley
Sketches of various scenes in the book.

For these few steps, I sketched them but did not add any color. I started thinking about the main color scheme instead. I knew right away that the elephant must be white to go with the theme of the story. I also chose blue, because I have this silly obsession with the color, and couldn’t imagine creating a whole book not primarily focused on it. The complementary color I chose was green because I like the way they look together, while still appearing masculine.

After taking the illustration courses, I knew to make Billy stand out by giving him bright blond hair. To further draw the eye, I would add bright red to objects like his coat, and on the gift ribbon, he carried at the Christmas party.

With all of these steps done, it was time to scan them into my computer and work on them digitally.

Make sure you stay tuned for the next installment of this series to read about the Making of White Elephant Surprise (Part Two): Going Digital.

If you would like your own copy of my book White Elephant Surprise, you can find it on Amazon.

Now, out of curiosity, I have a two-part question for all of you out there. 1.) Did you know what a white elephant gift exchange was prior reading the book or the blog? 2.) If no, what did you imagine the phrase meant? If yes, what are the rules for your version?

I love the unique answers I get whenever I ask this question. Can’t wait to hear yours!



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