Monday, 1 May 2017

Are Pictures A Writer's Business? Pippa Goodhart

I teach courses on writing picture books, and quite often students tell me that they have been told by other teachers that there is a ‘rule’ that an author mustn’t include any notes about design or illustration along with their texts.  To me, that’s wrong.  Very wrong.  The joy of picture books is the playing of the words, the pictures, and the book itself, together to perform a story.  If the originator of the story, usually the author, isn’t thinking about aspects of the book beyond the words from the story's inception, the result is going to be more limited than it should be. 
There’s a reason why many of the very best picture books of all time (Rosie’s Walk, Elmer The Elephant, Goodnight Gorilla, This Is Not My Hat, Handa’s Big Surprise, and many more) have been written and illustrated by the same person.  By thinking of the pictures and words together, those author-illustrators have honed the two to work together in powerful ways.  It’s no surprise that most of those books have very short texts.  Creators who illustrate as well as write, trust the illustrations to show most of the story, and they then use the text to tease the reader into reacting to the pictures, or they use the text to bring the pictures to life with dialogue.  They know that children ‘read’ pictures, even when they can’t all ‘read’ texts yet. 
Publishers usually have both editors and designers, but, traditionally, it’s the editor who is the first gate keeper for a publisher, deciding which texts to let in to further discussions which might then include designers.  A recent publishing experience has made me wonder whether publishers should always work along that set path towards a book.
I had a picture book story idea about a rabbit who wants some space for himself, away from the noise and activity of the other rabbits around him.  So Jack, the rabbit, runs to an empty space, where he draws a red line to define ‘his’ space in which he can read his book in peace.  Of course he then finds that being alone in a space can become lonely, and he wants to re-join his friends, but is now stuck because he’s made the rule about nobody crossing the line.  You can read the book if you want to find out how that problem gets resolved!  But my point here is that I felt that story was one which could be mostly shown in pictures, and then need very little text.  In fact, I thought it would be better with very little text.  So I wrote the text, adding notes about what the pictures needed to show.  Here’s an early version on which my artistic sister had made comments and sketches.

And I drew amateur sketches too, just to help me work out quite how the book might work.

I sent my text with its illustration and design ideas to a couple of big publishers who had published me in the past.  They didn’t want it.  I don’t know if the preponderance of illustration notes put them off.  I hope not, and I suspect they just didn’t feel that story was for them.  But then I read about a new children’s book publisher that was emerging from an existing publisher of beautiful adult comic books.  That was Flying Eye, just starting up within Nobrow.  So I sent my story to Sam Arthur of Flying Eye.  He, and his partner in the business, are both from a design background.  Suddenly it was the design idea (coming from an author!) that was of real interest.  This felt so different from the way I'd worked with other publishers! 

Rebecca Crane illustrated My Very Own Space very beautifully, and Flying Eye have published it equally beautifully, with felty thick paper within a hardback cover with gloss highlights and a fabric trimmed spine.  All of Flying Eye’s picture books are beautifully conceived and produced, and they are winning major prizes (perhaps most notably Shackleton's Journey by William Grill winning the Kate Greenaway Medal).  So I wonder if other publishers should include designers alongside editors as first filters on story proposals that come in? 

Boast alert!  Last week My Very Own Space was the Observer’s Book of the Week - hooray!  

So, yes, do dare to add notes about potential illustrations or design … but do it wisely, explaining story content and presentation rather than stepping onto the illustrator’s toes by detailing visual things that have no direct relevance to the story. 






13 comments:

  1. Very interesting! Thank you. I think the warning not to include instructions is because beginning picture book writers often do it to the extreme. There has to be a balance that does not disable the freedom of the illustrator.

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  2. You're quite right, Candy. Beginners tend to say that Sally is in a purple dress and the sun is in the right hand corner when neither the colour of the dress or position of the sun has any bearing on the story. Telling enough, but not too much, is a skill, and should always come with the proviso that what you're offering are suggestions rather than demands.

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  3. A great post. Pippa. And I'm entirely in agreement. I often include illustration notes with a text as they are often the only way to effectively convey a joke or an element of storytelling to the publisher. And I've sometimes included sketches as well. I view such notes and sketches as suggestions and if an illustrator or designer comes up with a better idea, they can use that instead.

    I would add that if authors want to have input into the way a book is illustrated, it’s only reasonable to let the illustrator have input into the way it’s written. So I often rewrite texts in response to illustrators suggestions and several of my picture books have been developed in response to an idea that was originally given to me by the book’s illustrator. I featured some of them in a PBD post here: http://picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/two-heads-are-better-than-one.html

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    1. Yes, that's a good point, Jonathan! I'm more than happy to work with the whole team of illustrator, editor, designer and me to come up with the best text for the best design and picture ideas. It's so exciting when that sort of collaboration is allowed! On this My Very Own Space story you'll note that it began as My Space, and I'd failed to notice the obvious clash with a rather more famous My Space online!

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  4. Well done on the Flying Eye deal Pippa! As an illustrator I like to have a clean sheet to work with without author sketches, but notes and explanatory diagrams where needed - absolutely! If the story doesn't work without visual direction, of course notes are needed. I always thought the publisher's strict "no note" policy was silly in terms of picture books, but as Candy says, the problem is when writers muscle in with image notes that prevent the illustrator developing their own view. It's clear enough when unnecessary details of dress etc are added, but sometimes it's more subtle - the writer might say a character went "here", then went "there" - it might be tempting to suggest where here and there are, but leaving such terms up to the imagination of the illustrator is crucial. Getting the balance right can be difficult, so publishers just say "don't do it". I expect if you have a track record of books with the publisher though and the submission requires it they might give a little more leeway. Flying Eye are good because the staff come from a design background originally - some other bigger UK publishers are all about the written word, with art departments under separate staff.

    When I was in Japan I sometimes turned up to editorial briefings to find the writer invited along too, who then proceeded to give criticism of my ideas, and suggestions - I wanted to scream "why did you invite the writer here?" to the editor - the resulting books were invariably a compromise and disappointment (one title I remember in particular), as I was under constraints to subjugate my interpretation to that of the writer.

    But. as you explain above - the best picture books are a melding of words and pictures, both writer and illustrator are authors of the overall narrative, so more flexibility when needed would make the process better. Great post!

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  5. Lovely to get the illustrator's perspective on all this, John. It's a delicate job, getting the right balance between the team inputting into a picture book. Awful if writer and illustrator aren't in tune, but glorious when they are!

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  6. I pitch illustrative ideas if the text isn't self-explanatory, and often re-write text as illustrations come in, but this is always through the editor, it must be lovely to be part of a truly collaborative process.

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    1. I'm the same as you, Jane. The chance to properly collaborate is rare, I think.

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    2. You have to be proactive. My collaborative projects have all been with illustrators I'd previously done a book with (after a publisher had put us together) and came about as a result of me or the illustrator contacting the other to say that we'd really like to work on another book together. When we had a draft and some sample we were both happy with, we started offering it to publishers.

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  7. Really interesting, I love how seeing how yours developed Pippa. I love the idea of writer and illustrator working together, merging ideas, creating better ones and producing a wonderfully collaborative book - two creative minds. From a newbie writer's perspective I also think there most be something quite magical too, about your script being handed over to another creative who, without any other input from the writer, makes it his/her own and takes it off on another journey that you couldn't possibly have imagined. It's an inspiring and intriguing process, I guess one size doesn't (& shouldn't) fit all.

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  8. It IS magical, Emma, and such a treat to have these wonderfully creative people making more of your story than you knew was there yourself. I've never yet been disappointed by picture book illustrations for my stories, whether or not I've had the chance to work closely with the illustrator.

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  9. So interesting, Pippa, and congratulations on what looks to be a gorgeous book(cute endpapers!). Sometimes I have visions in my head but the simple books with minimal text can be frustratingly tricky to explain to others. So glad you succeeded and looking forward to reading (and seeing!)'My Very Own Space'.

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  10. YAY! I'm so pleased you got that story published. I remember seeing an early draft of it and so it's nice to hear you found such a good home for it. I agree that too many illustration notes can get in the way and the author should trust that creative teams understand their vision without explanation. It's a balance. I blogged about this here: http://picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=illustrator+notes

    BUT the exception is exactly the type of book you have just published, where the concept is visually-led. Jane and I worked on a similar book, KNIGHT TIME, where we literally got out our tape and scissors and stick figures and this was how we managed to convince the sales and marketing team to take a punt. It went on to be a bestseller! But you need an editor with vision to champion such books or a collaborative team. Off to buy my copy now!

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