Saturday, 20 April 2013

How do you present a picture book text to a publisher? By Ragnhild Scamell

My very first picture book submission was probably 2500 words long, and it was full of action. When the editor rang to say that they loved it, I was overjoyed. Yippee!  A few weeks later, an envelope arrived, and inside was my story, stripped down to its bare bones. What? Where was all my clever stuff? In the gorgeous illustrations, of course, as I later discovered.

My second story was much more trimmed. I spent hours making sure that it was as short as I could make it, but it still came back heavily edited. ‘Sorry, the illustrations don’t allow much space,’ was my editor’s excuse. But when I saw the pleasing result in the finished picture book, I began to get the message. A picture book is a story visualized by three people: the writer, the editor and the illustrator.
Being a quick learner, I now devised a system of twelve floating computer boxes into which I fitted my story.  It took ages to do, but I was always happy with the final result before it went off. And I grew to accept that changes were inevitable, often to accommodate a particular illustrator’s style.
But as I became more and more experienced, I also became less and less spontaneous. As I fiddled and fussed, I began to wonder: Do publishers actually want thoroughly honed stories? The editor will be looking for something new and exciting, and the story must first and foremost be capable of inspiring the illustrator, so that she can produce her best and most imaginative work. 

So, would it be better not to be quite so fussy when sending off a text and to leave a bit of the fun for the editor to edit and for the illustrator to be excited by?
An editor once told me that they were happy to receive ideas which, together, we could turn into stories. I have never taken her up on that invitation, but it makes me wonder whether there isn’t something to be said for the style of my very first story. Do we take away some of the spontaneous fun by honing our stories too much and making them too thin? And are editors irritated by too many illustration notes? Do they cloud their vision?
I asked some of the Picture Book Denners what they do:
Abie Longstaff said: ‘Although I do not illustrate my books, I have studied illustration and I draw in my own time. Due to this the look of the book; the spreads, pacing and colour, is very high in my mind when I write. I always draw out full thumbnails for every book to help me get the delivery and speed right. I never send these to the publisher (they are just for me) but, because I have considered this angle, I do end up writing illustration notes. I know some publishers do not like this, but I have been lucky in that both of my main publishers are happy to have input and have included me at early stages of roughs or character designs.
So, I send out my text in one document marking the page breaks for 13 spreads and one extra page. I include notes of the main relevant points for illustration (such as where I have set up a joke between the text/picture, or where I have saved words by putting something in the illustration instead of the text) but not real detail such as colours (unless particularly relevant). I put the notes in italics. I do a cover page with my name, my agent's name, word count and age range for the book. Sometimes I play with the text, setting out parts of it as a newspaper article, or making patterns with the words if these kind of things are relevant to the story.’
Pippa Goodhart has a different approach: ‘The simple, but not very useful, answer is that the text should be presented in whatever way will make the clearest read of the story, with pictures in mind, for a potential editor.
I think that the best way to present a picture book text varies enormously according to the text and the story.  Sometimes there is no need to specify anything about pictures because their content is obvious, and the treatment of that content is up to the illustrator.  But sometimes there are parts of the story that I want shown in the illustrations, but which aren’t told in the text, so illustration notes are then necessary.  I tend to put those notes in italics, and they may take the form of general notes before the story text begins (‘NB  Scruffy is a toy rabbit, and the action takes place in a child’s bedroom’ kind of thing), or may be individual notes for each spread (‘The elephant is peeping out from behind the watering can; seen by us but not by Archie’, kind of thing).  I play with different presentations, but at the moment am favouring having the story text in a colour distinct from the illustration notes.  I want the editor to be able to read the text uninterrupted in order to really experience the qualities of the text, but to have the illustration notes handy in case he/she is wondering how things might look.’
Lynne Garner agrees: ‘I set mine out already broken down into the page spreads, sometimes with the odd illustration suggestion. That way my editor can see how I see the book flowing from one page to the next.’
Jane Clarke ‘I send my text in spreads and try not to put in notes to illustrators unless they’re absolutely necessary to make sense of the words.’
Malachy Doyle is very specific:
1.      ‘Finished, and as close to perfect as you possibly can.
2.      Less than 500 words.
3.      Double spaced (or one and a half)
4.      Set into a maximum of sixteen blocks of text. (preferably 12 to 14)
5.      With illustration guidelines, if necessary. (keep them to a minimum).
6.      Only rhyming if the story absolutely needs it (and you’re a brilliant rhymester).
7.      There needs to be an ‘aah!’ page.
8.      Finish with a smile.’
All are brilliant picture book writers, and the lesson I have drawn from this is that the more polished your story, the more chance you have of getting it published.
Do you agree? I shall be most interested to hear what you do. And are there any editors or agents out there who would like to put their point of view? What do you want to see?
Thank you very much indeed to everyone who contributed so generously to this blog. I couldn't have written it without you.

Ragnhild Scamell writes picture books and early readers


Jonathan Allen said...

My take would be that you should send in the most polished text you can. Why would you want to give the editor a reason to say 'no' ?
Making thumbnail sketches of each spread is useful when mapping out the story as seeing how the action changes from spread to spread can dictate what wording goes on each spread. This is best seen rather than imagined. The thumbnails can be very rough, mine are. There is no need for the publisher to see the thumbnails, but the text should be divided into blocks to indicate what would be on each spread.
As for illustration guidelines, keep it to what is relevant to the story, as Pippa mentioned above.
re rhyming, I was always dissuaded from rhyme, because it is so hard to translate. So I avoided it. Then The Gruffalo comes along. . . sigh. . .

Linda Strachan said...

Excellent and really useful blog, thanks, Ragnhild.
It illustrates how there are some variations on how to present a book but most of all it has to be clearly visualised as a picture book by the writer.
I am often asked to read picture book texts by aspiring writers and find that they have obviously put a lot of work into the text but not really considered how it would look on the page.

Penny Dolan said...

Just shows how differently people think about these things - but certainly a case for presenting the best story in its own best way. Thanks, Ragnild.

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for this very useful post! I'm bookmarking it for future reference. Since I'm just getting back into writing pb, it's so great to know that it's okay to include a few illustration notes to help with the flow of the story.

Ragnhild said...

Thank you for your comment, Jonathan. Seems to me that we all, more or less, do the same thing.

Ragnhild said...

Thank you Linda. I think the ability to visualise a picture book text is what sets us aside from other writers for children.

Ragnhild said...

And thank you, Penny.

Ragnhild said...

I'm really pleased that you found my blog useful, Andrea. Best of luck with your new venture.

Abie Longstaff said...

Thanks very much Ragnhild. It's really interesting to see how other authors present their work.

Paeony Lewis said...

I love the cover of Solo, Ragnhild.
I'm similar to others. I divide the text into spreads, or present it as straight text, depending on the story. My agent always likes as few illustration notes as possible, and if I must do quite a few then I'm supposed to do one version with the illustration notes, and one without.
By the way, in places like the USA I assume it's still frowned upon to send out submissions divided into spreads? We've been discussing submissions in the UK.

Playing by the book said...

Great to read so many different perspectives.

Paula Knight said...

Interesting blog - thanks. I do most of those things although, being an illustrator who has turned to writing, I think I need to cut down on the illustration notes -judging by what others advise.

Ragnhild said...

And thank you very much, Abie, for your very useful contribution.

Ragnhild said...

Interesting that you mention your agent's view, Paeony. Two different versions - that's a good idea. I've just written a story in rhyme (Oh, no!!)and I think I shall send it off in two versions - one rhyme and one not.

Ragnhild said...

Thank you, Paula. I really hope for you that you get to the stage when you can both write and illustrate your books. I'd love to do that.

Candy Gourlay said...

A very useful post indeed for anyone preparing a submission! Thanks ... sharing this on my various discussion groups.

Ragnhild said...

So pleased that you found it useful.

Hot Frog said...

Interesting Ragnhild, thank you

Julie Rowan-Zcoh said...

Superb post!

Bridget Marzo said...

Great post Ragnhild - thanks! I'm in the Malachy Doyle camp as an illustrator-author, thinking in blocks of texts - a storyboard of 12 spreads (16 at the very max if the title page and endpapers are an illustrated comment on the story).
At the outset I like to use 12 post-its, laid out like a storyboard. I find that even when I have no visual idea yet, if I write the words at this rough stage in some clear area of each mini post-it spread, it helps me remember the importance of suspense, the page turn and pacing.

Kyra said...

I know I'm late on this, but I just saw it. I'm planning to start querying my first picture book later this summer, once I've polished and edited a bit more. I've always heard (from Writer's Market, etc.) that the text shouldn't be divided into pages, just typed all the way through. I'm confused now! (Great post, though).

I'm also wondering where you guys and other new picture book writers get feedback. I don't want to just send my manuscript out into an internet critique group, but I want to get constructive criticism that could help me get published.