Sunday 27 September 2015

Illustration Notes? by Natascha Biebow

At the SCBWI picture book retreat this summer, we had a debate about illustration notes. 

Some quite well-established authors and illustrators argued that we should be allowed to include these to communicate clearly to the editor how the book should work. How else would we explain everything?!

We put the question to one of the editors who came to speak. "Definitely not!" she said.

Hmm... So illustration notes are a big no, no...

Oh dear, we all wailed. As authors who don’t draw, this is so hard! However will we communicate everything we’re imagining in our heads?  How will we be sure the editor “gets” our stories?

OK, deep breath.  Remember two things:  

1. Picture book editors know how to imagine the pictures. It's their job.

When you add illustrator notes, you are interrupting the flow of the words as the editor is reading your story. It is distracting and highly annoying.

Editors are skilled at reading picture book texts and imagining the pictures. They instinctively know how to match a really good story with just the right illustrator to add an extra level of detail, humour and excitement.

2. The pictures are the illustrator’s job
They don’t want to be told how to do their job . . .

When you add detailed illustrator notes, it is as if you are trying to micro-manage the illustrator. Picture book illustrators are skilled at imagining stories and scenes when they read a story. They don’t want to be told how it should look. Chances are, they will add layers to your story that you never even imagined. This is why picture books are so exciting to work on – they evolve.

Remember, too, that once a book is commissioned, editors will offer authors the opportunity to share their vision and comment on the roughs and artwork.

But, how, oh how, will you be able to get across your story clearly without illustration notes?

First, take them ALL out.  

Eek, I know, it's hard. Now, pretend you are all cosy on the story carpet, ready to hear a story read aloud to you. Read the story out loud. It should be attention-grabbing!

You should be able to hear it flow without the need for any explanation. The story has to be strong enough to stand alone. If it doesn’t make sense, you’ll need to add more context, more specific scenes, more vivid dialogue.

But what about the word count, I hear you wail! 

Yes, this is a challenge. You will need to add more words to get it all in, and then cut, cut, cut, so that each word works extra hard. If you polish your ‘show, don’t tell’ skills, and create vivid scenes so we can be there in the moment, you don’t need too many words.

Make up a small dummy book and read it aloud, looking at how the page turns work. This is a great way to check the pacing of your story, but also to see where you can cut unnecessary explanations and words.


So can I never include illustration notes? Are there any exceptions to this rule?

One technique you can try is to include any really important notes concerning the story in the cover letter to the editor. This is where, for instance, you can explain that your main character is a particular animal or that at the end of the story, there is an unexpected visual twist.

Visual irony: if your story relies on visual irony, for example, with the text saying one thing, and the illustrations showing the reality, you can include a very brief illustration note.

Page turn surprise: sometimes, surprises are revealed when a page is turned, in which case a short, bracketed note will be enough. 

Visual twist or wordless page: if your story relies on a visual joke or there is a wordless page, you can include a brief note to this effect.

Novelty books: in the case of novelty books, you can consider mocking up your idea simply in order to convey how the narrative works. 

One author who came from a marketing background, used to send me stick figure drawings as part of his manuscript – one for his idea of the cover and one for the visual twist. It was simple and effective, and it didn’t interfere with reading and enjoying the story. But, generally speaking, if your story is strong enough, you shouldn't need to send any stick figures, gimmicks or chocolates. Your voice should speak for itself!

Do you have any illuminating or frustrating experiences with illustration notes that you'd like to share?

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my NEW small group coaching courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.


Jonathan Emmett said...

WOW! I'm guessing that I've never worked with the editor at the retreat as, more often than not, my picture book texts include notes and sometimes they are quite extensive. I think one of the characteristics of a good picture book text is that the pictures convey the story as much as the words, and one piece of advice I commonly give to new picture book writers is “don't waste the reader's time by describing things that will be shown far better in the illustration.” But if the element you wanted to describe is important to the story, or will enhance the readers of enjoyment in some way, you need to make sure that it is communicated in the manuscript, rather than hoping the editor or illustrator will be able to deduce it.

A lot of my stories feature visual irony, page turn surprises and visual twists, but these are not the only things I include in an illustration notes. This might have something to do with the type of stories I write, but when I first started writing picture books, editors would often say that they could not visualise how the illustrations would work. Including illustration notes are an effective way of conveying this. For instance the stories of the “Owner’s Guides” books I created with illustrator Mark Oliver are entirely conveyed in the pictures, rather than the manual-like texts. If I hadn’t included illustration notes for every spread in these books, the story and overall concept would not have come across at all.

As to ‘not telling illustrators how to do their job’ – I mentioned in one of my PBD posts ( that I sometimes start working with illustrators before taking a story to a publisher. In such instances there has always been an understanding that my illustration notes are suggestions, and the illustrator should feel free to substitute their own ideas. Similarly, I encourage illustrators to give me notes on how I might improve the story. I don’t see this as the illustrator telling me how to do my job, I see this as useful creative feedback which the author or illustrator can take or leave as they see fit. I think a creative collaborative approach like this, with a dialogue between author and illustrator, can often yield better results than the rigidly compartmentalised “you do your job – I’ll do mine” approach.

As for ‘interrupting the flow of the words’; my illustration notes are italicised and in a smaller point size than the story text, so it’s easy for an editor to tell them apart and skip over them, if they want to get a feeling for how the story flows.

Sorry to be so contradictory. You do make some great points in the post, but I think this illustrates that there is more than one way to write a successful picture book. :)

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks for your sharing your experiences, Jonathan! It IS a controversial subject. You make some good points and, as you say, there is no one way to do things. Some newer writers can sometimes rely too much on illustration notes to do the job of the text. The text needs to be strong. And yes, if you do include notes, they should be small and unobtrusive. Of course, if you have a completely visual picture book, there is probably no way around communicating what is going on. This is where a dummy can sometime be helpful perhaps. I agree that creating picture books is a collaborative job between writers and illustrators and the best ones are a result of a dialogue and creative exchange between the two. I do think it's important to give the illustrator time and space to interpret the text and come up with his/her creative vision, which can then be built upon by everyone in the creative team. The best books evolve and the words and pictures create more than the sum of the parts. That's what makes them special and exciting for me.

George Kirk said...

This is really helpful. I mostly write with no notes unless something has to be in the picture to drive the story forward. But I do have one that relies heavily on visual storytelling and so there are a lot of notes, which has always been a bit of a dilemma. I'm going to try some of your suggestions to see if I can tighten it up. Just simply explaining the visual element in the covering letter could really make a huge difference. Thanks.

Jonathan Emmett said...

By way of 'illustration", I've just posted an image showing some of my illustration notes for a spread from 'The Santa Trap' on Twitter here: The use of the mannequin referred to in the notes (which is never referred to in the text of the story) sets up something that happens later in the plot – the tigers attack Bradley when he inadvertently ends up looking like the mannequin. A lot of my stories have integral visual elements like this that need illustration notes to convey them.

Jane Clarke said...

I see a story in pictures in my head as I write it, but, for all the reasons covered in your post, I try to keep illustration notes to a minimum. Knight Time was tricky - it was clear in my mind, but very hard a non-illustrator to convey on paper. I was lucky you spotted its potential, Natascha, and helped me shape it!

Jane Clarke said...

Interesting link, thanks Jonathan. I completely understand why those notes are necessary, but reading that snippet cold - at that moment, they did interrupt the flow of the text. Maybe not so important if the notes are in the middle of the text, and the editors' attention has already been grabbed, but could be off-putting at the outset, especially if the writer is unknown to the editor?

Kathryn Henderson said...

An interesting and helpful post. I don't use many notes however I sometimes find I am tempted in the final spread, usually to ensure an idea I have carried through the text is included if it somehow enhances the ending. Perhaps I should consider that an editor or illustrator would pick that up anyway if the text is strong. I think I will take another look with your suggestions in mind. The idea of including a visual element in the cover letter is interesting. Thank you.

Candy Gourlay said...

Thanks for this, Natascha. As someone coming from novel writing I completely understand what you mean by interrupting the editor's experience of the story. I can also see why authors might feel like they're relinquishing control without visual notes. I think your article addresses brilliantly why a light touch is necessary.

Candy Gourlay said...

Thanks for this, Natascha. As someone coming from novel writing I completely understand what you mean by interrupting the editor's experience of the story. I can also see why authors might feel like they're relinquishing control without visual notes. I think your article addresses brilliantly why a light touch is necessary.

Jon Burgess Design said...

Interesting post Natascha. From a writer/illustrator's perspective it's less of an issue, as the story often gets worked up into a rough dummy before even being submitted to the publisher, because working out the 'flow' is part of the two jobs we schizoid artist/writers are doing.
I would definitely agree with you generally and say keep any notes to a minimum, unless, like Jonathan E, you are experienced enough to know why you need the particular notes you provide. You have to earn the right to tell someone their job! ;-)

Juliet Clare Bell said...

It's so interesting to hear editors talk about it. A different editor from the same retreat had a different take on it. There are certain publishers who seem much more interested in illustration notes than others (I've been asked to put MORE in sometimes to show my vision).

I think you're absolutely right to say about removing UNNECESSARY art notes, and I know that I used to think loads of my notes were necessary, whereas they're clearly not, looking back on old manuscripts, where, as you said, you could have written a sentence at the beginning to convey the entire premise behind the story in the pictures. In our in-person critique group, where we get new people joining every so often, we've said, if in doubt, keep them in and then we'll get rid of any that are unnecessary. And usually, most of them are.

But as someone who loves visual storytelling in picture books, I like to see lots of things in picture books where any author who doesn't illustrate would have to put in art notes, so your exceptions to the rule are critical -and I hope, used frequently! Thanks, Clare.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Some of my texts have gone out with no illustration notes, since none were needed, but others have lots of visual ideas attached. Nearly all the very best picture books are written and illustrated by the same person, and I think that's exactly because they can make the text as spare as possible, knowing what story will be shown in the pictures. I tend to write the text in red, leaving notes in black italics, and then the editor can easily read text only if they want to. And I always make the point that my illustration notes are suggestions, and not instructions. There should be a conversation about both text and pictures. I'm happy for an illustrator to suggest textual changes, and I like it when illustrator and designer include me in discussions about the look of a book.
An interesting post, Natascha

Abie Longstaff said...

I'd love to be able to illustrate too! It would really help in showing an editor the story that's going on in my head. For me it varies. Like Pippa, sometimes I don't give notes but sometimes, as Jonathan says, it's an essential element of the story so it does need to go somewhere in the text. Interesting how we've each found different ways of not interrupting the flow - changing text font or colour or putting it into the covering email. I don't think there should be a hard and fast rule - whatever works for you and your editor :)

Jonathan Emmett said...

Good to see I'm not the only picture book author that thinks illustration notes can be beneficial. I'd echo Abie's comment about there not being "a hard and fast rule". I always tell new writers that any advice I give should not be taken as a rule – it's just what works for me.

malachy doyle said...

Fascinating. I use them often - but I keep them to the bare minimum (and write them in a smaller font, in brackets, in italics.) Some stories need none. Some need them for nearly every spread. The current draft of one I'm working on with Walker has 18 illustration notes, comprising 150 words. Much more than my usual, but necessary, I believe, to get across what I need to get across. No editor has ever asked me to take out or scale down such notes. I'm not saying this is what HAS to be in the illustrations, obviously, but - as the text of a story is kept to the bare minimum too - they definitely help the editors understand what I'm getting at.

Lynne Garner said...

I try not to put them in however there are times that I will sneak in the odd one here and there, when I feel it is really important. I always have them in italics and justify right. Hopefully that way they are not too intrusive when being read by the editor.

Alan said...

What a fascinating thread! My inclination has always been to not include notes for the reasons Natascha suggests. However, my faith in picture book editors' ability or inclination to visualise is not as sure as it once was. A few years back I sent a picture book out with no notes to publishers and received only rejections; my agent had the idea of getting a new illustrator on her list to add rough pictures and, lo and behold, a number of publishers (including some who'd already seen the "bare" text) were very interested and I ended up having to choose between them. Having said that, I still think that generally less is best.

Moira Butterfield said...

Many thanks for this. I give notes and sketches on a separate document where necessary. I feel quite strongly about this lady's comments that editors are fabulous god-like experts who always know best and don't need to have anything pointed out to them....I'm afraid that these days that can't be taken as a given. In the recession many experienced editors lost their jobs.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much - this has been a source of much confusion for me and now I have the final word! FAB! :)

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Unknown said...

Really helpful and actually a relief to remove my illustration notes!