Monday, 24 May 2021

Making It Up As You Go Along by Paddy Donnelly

This week we invited guest author-illustrator Paddy Donnelly to talk to us about creating his new picture book The Vanishing Lake, published by Yeehoo Press.

I’m always fascinated to hear how other authors and illustrators’ put the pieces of their picture books together. There can be a variety of methods each person implements, and each process differs wildly. No matter how many interviews I listen to, or articles I read, every creator seems to follow a different path towards their goal. There is one thing they all have in common though. They made that process up, and are still making it up.

There’s no such thing as a perfect ‘process’ and no two picture book projects follow the exact same set of steps to completion. Writing and illustrating are quite unpredictable tasks - filled with floods of inspiration as well as creative droughts. Challenges appear, feedback can be surprising and you can most definitely find yourself painted into a corner. What’s important to remember is that everyone, no matter how successful they are, also experience all of these things on each project. It’s how you react to them that spurs you towards success.

When starting out in this industry, I would view people who were successful as those who’d ‘figured it out’. They’d discovered the magic formula for putting together a bestseller. However the longer I worked as an illustrator and author, the more I discovered the common truths that link everyone together. Everyone is full of doubts. Everyone has made many mistakes. Everyone has been surprised when something became a ‘hit’. And everyone has a dream story idea that nobody has picked up (yet!). It was reassuring to hear that successful authors and illustrators also took very rambling paths towards where they are today. Nobody in fact has really figured ‘it’ out. And there’s not really an ‘it’ to figure out. Realising this, and combining it with some advice from my old university lecturer - ‘Just say yes and figure it out later’, has definitely brought many enjoyable opportunities my way.

I first got into children’s publishing in 2018, and in the beginning I had no clue how all the different parts of the publishing machine worked, what publishers like to see in a portfolio, what an agent does or how to create an effective page turn. I tried to soak up as much knowledge as I could, and while there are many ‘guidelines’ to working in picture books, they are simply that - ‘guidelines’. All these ‘rules’ can be broken. There’s always a first time for everything. And you can absolutely change your way of working, or completely switch up your illustration style, or write in another genre. Nothing is set in stone.

My debut author illustrated picture book,
The Vanishing Lake, was published in April 2021 and was such an enjoyable experience. This is my eighth picture book to be published, but the first where I was gelling the two halves together.


The Vanishing Lake is about a little girl called Meara who visits her Grandad who lives by a mysterious lake which disappears and reappears for no apparent reason. She constantly asks her Grandad why it happens and each time he has a more extravagant and unbelievable reason for her. Meara doesn’t believe any of his stories about mermaids, giants or narwhals, but with a little imagination she may discover the ‘real’ reason.

The story is actually based on a real place, close to where I grew up in Ballycastle in Ireland. It’s a lake called Loughareema which actually does disappear and reappear every few days, depending on the weather!

Storytelling is a huge part of life in Ireland, so I was surrounded by myths and legends from a young age and I think that’s had a big influence on me and my work. Rough seas, rugged coastlines, islands and mountains are all things I absolutely love to illustrate. That definitely comes from growing up surrounded by stunning scenery. It’s something I’ve come to appreciate so much more after moving away.

When you grow up with a wonder like this on your doorstep, you definitely take it for granted, and I hadn’t really thought about it for years. I was brainstorming a few different story ideas and it somehow popped into my head one day. I thought the title itself was intriguing and then I set off to build a story around that. I thought the mystery of ‘why’ the lake would disappear and reappear could be interesting to drive the story, and then setting the character up to be unwilling to believe each reason, spurred me on to come up with crazier and crazier ones.


I created the little girl of Meara for kids to relate to, and then I needed a wiser character who could tell her these tales. A grandparent made the most sense here as there’s something special about the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. They’re at such different points in their lives, but there’s often a really direct connection that kids don’t have with their parents. And grandparents are often full of wild tales. Playing on that familiar situation of a child asking ‘why?’ something is the way it is, and a parent/ grandparent trying to give an explanation was something I thought both the reading parent and child could relate to.

Meara couldn’t live by the lake herself, otherwise she’d be like me and probably think it was quite normal for it to disappear and reappear. The setting had to be familiar and at the same time strange and mysterious, so that was another reason to make it a grandparent who lived by the lake.

As most picture books have a standard number of pages, I knew how much I had to work with. I laid out some super rough thumbnails, plotting in the main set pieces - introduction to the lake, having it disappear and reappear, a few spreads of Grandad’s wild tales and then a few resolution spreads.

Once I had that really rough outline, I made slightly more detailed roughs. Then I finally moved on to the words. I’d learned a little from my characters from the sketching process, so I could now start writing in their ‘voices’. For example, I knew the Grandad would be really casually telling these magical stories of giants and mermaids, brushing them off as completely normal. Of course mermaids pulled the plug out!

I wrote and rewrote, all the while keeping the visuals in mind. 

Trying not to show and tell, but have both the words and illustrations work together in harmony, as two halves of the same puzzle. 

As I wrote, that would lead me to new ideas for illustrations, and as I would work on the final illustrations, I would be tweaking the words. I bounced back and forth, back and forth all the way until the end.

This was very different to my previous book projects, where I was illustrating someone else’s story. Usually in that situation, the manuscript has already been through an editing process and comes to you fully formed. So you don’t really have an affect on the actual words as you add the illustrations. I don’t really want to mess with the author’s words either, and I find that process really fascinating too. You get a huge flood of images in your head as soon as you read through a really well-formed piece of writing, and the best manuscripts already get me sketching after the first read.

I wanted to have the natural world shine through in the artwork, using a lot of vibrant colour schemes. I would take a lot of inspiration from the Irish landscape, but also with a little bit of fantasy world built in. The mix between imaginary worlds and the real world is a key element in this story, however it’s very difficult to see where one begins and one ends. 

The lines are blurred, and I left plenty of space for the child reading it to decide what’s real and what’s not.

Maybe you’ll be able to pull some interesting insights out of how I worked on this picture book. Some things might work for you, some things totally won’t. Take bits and pieces from it, try it backwards, take a sledgehammer to it! Remember though, that this was my path for this one particular book, and I can already see that it’s not the same for my second author illustrated picture book. This next one is an entirely different kind of story and is presenting both new challenges and firsts for me as an author and illustrator. All really exciting though!

‘Process’ is, and should be, a constantly evolving thing as you grow as an author or illustrator. 

Take comfort in the fast that everyone else is making it up as they go too. Don’t be afraid to get messy in your process. Try out something wild, new and scary and see what happens!

What does your current ‘process’ look like? Do you visualise images first when you’re writing a story? Do the characters already have a voice and you feel like you’re just writing down what they say. Do you have no idea what your characters will look like until the illustrator sends the first artwork? Or if you both write and illustrate, how does one fit with the other? 

Watch trailer of the book here!

Watch Paddy's short interview here. 


Paddy Donnelly is an Irish illustrator and author of picture books, and also creates middle grade book covers. He wishes Pluto was still a planet. Follow him on Twitter @paddydonnelly and on Instagram at  @paddy



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