Friday, 6 January 2012

How do you write picture books if you're not an illustrator?

By Paeony Lewis

I write picture books and I don’t illustrate. Below you can see proof as to why nobody sane would let me illustrate. I suspect you've guessed that the bunny on the left is by a real illustrator (Sarah Gill, from our book Hurry Up, Birthday). And the bunny on the right? Yikes!

I envy those who both write and illustrate. They can be ambitious and meld words and pictures into amazing books. However, that doesn’t preclude non illustrators from writing picture books. No way! I've seen wonderous picture books where the author and illustrator aren’t the same person.

So how can you write picture books if you don’t illustrate? The simple answer is that you must think visually. For example, don’t include excessive descriptive detail in a story because this will be seen in the illustration. Think how words and images could work together to produce something that isn’t simply an illustrated story. Plus there must be opportunities for varied illustrations throughout the book.

Dividing up your story text into double-page spreads makes it easier to visualise the structure of the book (twelve is a good number of spreads). It also helps you to see if there are enough varied illustration possibilities. Some writers even make rough dummies for their own use (with scruffy line drawings for their eyes only!). I think it's important to remember that the turning of the page forms part of the story telling. It’s another form of punctuation: a huge anticipatory pause.

Oxford Reading Tree
It’s a weird thing that although most editors in the UK are happy to accept texts divided into spreads, this isn’t the case in the US. I’ve never understood that. With spreads, I find it easier to visualise not just my own text, but also other texts by other writers. Perhaps some editors feel the writer is stepping on the toes of the designer and illustrator? After all, we’re not allowed to give illustration notes unless something vital can’t be interpreted from the text alone. And then there is the strange exception to all this: educational publishing. If we write reading scheme books (eg Oxford Reading Tree) then we’re supposed to give detailed illustration notes for each page. The first time I did this I felt naughty, as though I was doing something forbidden!

If I haven’t bored you senseless in this blog, then you might be interested to see an excerpt from Best Friends or Not? (Piccadilly Books). Here’s the text and there are several illustration possibilities:

Spread 8  (pages 18/19)

Outside the cave, it had begun to snow.
Nanook stood alone and watched the falling snow. Gusts of wind swirled the snowflakes into shapes.
“Dancing snowbears,” whispered Nanook.
Nanook danced. He danced with her silent snow friends.

At the publishers there will be input from the editor, art editor, designer, illustrator and maybe even marketing. Often texts are reworked. It really is teamwork, and in theory the writer should see black and white roughs of the page layout and illustration before final illustrations are produced. This allows the writer to make comments, although the writer never has the final say.

Below is the published double-page spread from Best Friends of Not?, illustrated by Gaby Hansen.

Did you imagine something different when you only saw the text? Can you see why writers don’t divide the text into individual pages? It would be too restrictive as there are so many layout possibilities. In this case there are three separate images, but there could easily have been just one. And guess what? When I wrote this I had a clear image in my head of snowflakes swirling in the shape of bears. The illustrator, Gaby Hansen, interpreted the story differently, and that’s absolutely fine. She even has the bear sticking out his tongue to catch snowflakes, and I think that’s delightful and I hadn’t visualised that.

Often the final book looks nothing like the writer had originally imagined. This doesn’t have to be a problem, unless you’re a control freak! The writer is the catalyst. Our stories must overflow with illustration possibilities, and then we must take a step back. Though I hope writers are never completely ignored in the later stages, because even if we can’t illustrate, we've seen pictures in our heads whilst we've been writing the words. Picture books are teamwork.

Paeony Lewis is a children’s book author and writing tutor.


Lynne Garner said...

A lovely post. I must admit I do tend to see images of the pages as I write but am more than these will not translate onto the page when given to an illustrator.

P.S. I see nothing wrong with your rabbit everything is in the correct place!

Lizzie said...

Yes, I thought it was a very cute rabbit, Paeony. Thanks for the post, very informative

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks Lynne and Eliza. I posted this blog at 0840, not 0040, because it didn't automatically load at 0800. Does any of that make sense?! Does anyone else have constant problems with Blogger, or should I take it personally? If I can anthropomorphise rabbits and bears, I'll do the same with Blogger!

Moira Butterfield said...

I'm much more of a control freak than this and always provide sketches or at least illustration brief notes whether people choose to ignore them or not. I like the point you make about turning the page being a part of the story. The process of reading a storybook is a very physical thing, and that turning does create a pause, so I would expect to choose where those pauses fall.

malachy doyle said...

When my first picture book, Owen and the Mountain, came out there was a dog featuring prominently in both the cover and the illustrations. There's no dog in the text and I was shocked. The story, though, is about a boy staying with his Grandad for the first time, and their joint fondness for the dog is a very good and effective way of conveying their growing relationship. I've learned to stand back from the illustration - I provide explanatory notes only when I deem them essential.
I always present my text in spread form, but am very flexible about final layout.

Sue Purkiss said...

This is really interesting. I envisaged dancing snow bears too!

Enid Richemont said...

Don't put that bunny down, Paeony - he's rather sweet and knowing. And I enjoyed your post.

Stroppy Author said...

Lovely - I agree, and am not a control freak. I give very few illustration notes, but do see the whole thing in my head. And I don't think I could do it without dividing into spreads, maybe because of that last point. perhaps I'll try visualising as a scroll instead and see if I can escape the tyranny of the spread. Except I don't see it as tyranny...

Paeony Lewis said...

Very much enjoyed reading your comments, Moira, Malachy, Sue, Enid and Anne. Many thanks.
Malachy, I looked at the cover of 'Owen and the Mountain' - how interesting.
Those of you attached to spreads (like me!), do you ever submit more than 12? Sometimes the spreads can be up to 15, but I'm always nervous of doing that.

cherie foster colburn said...

I switched over to WORDPRESS for my gardening blog, Paeony. Much friendlier, in my opinion, and I feel I have more control, even if it is just an illusion!

malachy doyle said...

I try and stick to 12 spreads, Paeony, but I let the story dictate. Sometimes it's as few as 10, sometimes as many as 15. I know the editors will knock it into shape.

Paeony Lewis said...

In future I'll remember about Wordpress, Cherie, and thanks. However, Lynne has spent soooo much time learning Blogger she'd blow down our den if we mentioned switching!
That's interesting to know, Malachy. I'll feel less guilty now if the spreads number 13-15.

Linda Strachan said...

Interesting post, Paeony.
I have done both, divided up text into pages, often because of the anticipation you talked about, when turning the page reveals a surprise. But also left a text without divisions but in my head I always see where the breaks will come.
It can be strange seeing illustrations especially if it is not as you had imagined it would look, which is most of the time, but it is one of the things I love about picture books, working with other creative people and discovering what they see in my text.

Paeony Lewis said...

Very true, Linda, and thanks for the comment. For me, those texts I leave undivided are often the ones that have too many potential spreads.

abbyzeeble said...

Very interesting. I have just written my first picture book and it has definitely been conceived visually - I can imagine every picture in my head. I'm about to send it up to agents in a few days... It's an exciting time. I'm really enjoying reading this blog.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thank you and good luck, abbyzeeble. I've been writing a picture book text today, even though I should have been doing something else. They're irristable.

Alison Boyle said...

That's really interesting Paeony, that after thinking about it a lot you might settle on a 'general' name like Big Bear. There is competition for this sort of character name, but sometimes it does just feel like the best option.

Soon I'll be posting my first blog on Picturebook Den about a character called Little Bee, and the process of name selection was not unlike what you have described.

jamie said...

I recently provided an illustrator who is hopefully going to illustrate one of my stories with lots of visual material regarding how I originally saw the character looking, several photos of haircuts, clothes, how the interior of his house could look, how the house itself could look. This was more to show him how eccentric I viewed the character as being. I told him he didn't have to use any of it, but in case it inspired him to feel free. He was very grateful and told me I ought to be an Editor/Art Director haha.