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Friday, December 3, 2010

I Come Bearing Gifts: Illustration Basics -- for Writers!

This is meant to be a present for all you picture book writers out there, so I hope it doesn't come across sounding too much like a lecture.

Which it might. Because it kind of is. It's an abbreviated version of the guest lecture I gave last night to students in the kid lit class taught by Kitty Griffin Lagorio at Chatham University.

Well, you'll just have to suck it up and say thank you to me anyhow. That's how it is: you have to act all appreciative even for the scratchy woolen undershirts your Great Aunt Agatha got you when what you were really hoping for was the deluxe Animal Clinic with Vet Operating Room and add-on Guinea Pig Pen from Playmobil.
(I need this set; I am a complete sucker for all things miniature, Playmobil, and animal-related. Oh, and definitely for anything guinea pig-related. And I really, really need the set because my husband says absolutely, positively no more pets [don't worry - we still have some], especially not little caged ones, even though he agrees that our late guinea pig, Hamster aka Piggy, was cute and sweet. Someday I'll grow up. Maybe. Okay, probably not.)
Okay, on to the point. And really, this is a better gift than the hot chocolate that the little chick is giving the snowman above (though probably not as good as the Guinea Pig Pen set. And definitely not as good as a real, live guinea pig. I love them squeakers.)

We'll begin with the facts.

Fact # 1 The picture book market is tighter than ever. See, for example, this recent New York Times article which I found incredibly distressing. (Also see this thoughtful reaction from the stellar kids' books columnist Karen MacPherson. And then go check out Anita Silvey's children's book-a-day blog .)
Fact # 2 Author-illustrators disproportionately win Caldecott Medals and Honor awards over illustrator-onlies. And if you add in true collaborative teams of writer-illustrators, which you should, the do-togethers give the do-separately's a real whupping. And I am pretty sure that this is not coincidence or happenstance - there are reasons why have one unit tends to produce better picture books.

Fact #3 Even if you have zero artistic skills (as in can't even draw a stick figure that's not missing an essential body part), you can still learn the illustrator's mindset that will let you craft manuscripts with all the panache of a skilled author-illustrator. And that will give your picture book manuscript a leg up in capturing the attention of an editor or agent, in getting beautifully illustrated by a dream artist, and in becoming a fabulous (and maybe even award-winning) book beloved by generations of children.

I really don't think I'm over-promising here.

Here's how. Take notes. Or just download my lecture notes here. Oops - just noticed they translated funny into a pdf. Hmm. I'll fix them tomorrow.

Step One Think Like an Illustrator as Well as a Writer in the Planning and First Draft Stages
That means coming up with a story and manner of telling it that involves lots of action. Show-able action. Books packed with lots of feeling and thinking divorced from doing simply don't lend themselves to fabulous illustrations. They'll be visually boring. No one will want to illustrate them, much less spend $20 on them. Plan for visual variety - you want different locations, characters, stuff happening. Okay, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd's Goodnight Moon all takes place in the same one room with the same small cast of characters just saying goodnight to stuff - but at least it was a "great" room and Clement Hurd is an illustrating genius. (And it didn't win any awards in its day - it didn't even sell well until many years later.)

Remember you have 32 pages to work with, minus front matter and maybe back matter. You have to be able to fill up those pages in a mix of single page, full spread, and spot illustrations - but not cram them so full they overflow. So avoid trying to accomplish too much or too little. Think Baby Bear and Just Right.

Think about how HALF, yes half, the story gets to be told in pictures by the illustrator. Nobody likes a ball hog; sharing is nice and only fair.

And then just write. Go ahead and put in all the stuff I'm going to make you cut later - the long, boring, detailed descriptions, the extra scenes, the part of the story the illustrator can tell all by herself. Just get it out - I know you have to. (I'm a writer too.)

Step Two Imagine Your Manuscript as a Book and Divide Up the Text
Use a pencil for this stage - you'll probably have to mark up your manuscript over and over. I always do. It takes me at least five tries to get it right - and usually more. It's HARD. Don't forget to leave room in the 32 pages for front matter (title page, copyright, dedication, etc.) and back matter if needed. Also don't forget that page 1 and page 32 stand alone - the rest are spreads with the even numbers on the left and the odd ones on the right. You can print out my one page storyboard here, if that helps you keep it in mind.

After you do that, really exercise your visual imagination and make your manuscript into an illustrated book in some fashion. Help, you cry! I can't draw a lick! Don't fret - deformed stick figures, blob trees and furnishings, etc. are perfectly fine. It's more a matter of imagining what might be on a page. You can do this on the storyboard I've provided (if you haven't reached reading glasses stage of life) or you can make a dummy (or sketched sample) book by folding 8 pieces of paper in half (which makes 32 pages since you'll use fronts and backs), or even, if you're really drawing-challenged, by writing an annotated copy of your manuscript that describes the possible illustrations and their placement.

Think about page turns (the reader should be compelled by words and/or pictures to relieve the tension you and the illustrator have created on the current spread by turning the page); variety, rhythm, repetition, and balance in the images and text and their relation to each other;and the opening, big moment and last image, all of which need to be visually compelling, matched with the text in quantity and impact, and satisfying.

Finally, don't get too wedded to your own vision. The chances that the illustrator will duplicate it are, quite frankly, slim. But she'll be drawn in by your obvious attention to visual structure.

Step Three Cut and Change
Especially cut. Ruthlessly. All those lovely descriptions that you now realize can be shown in the illustration? Slash. All that explanation that will be conveyed even more movingly or humorously in pictures? Delete. All those unnecessary words, words, words? GET RID OF THEM. The best picture book manuscripts (today) are spare, even poetic. Think haiku. Think minimalist. Think uncluttered.

You may realize you need to eliminate entire scenes (or, more rarely, add some). Or you might want to move things around, like rearranging the furniture, so page turns work better and you're not tripping over story elements on your way from Point A to Point B.

This will be a hard, hard, hard step for most writers. Time for chocolate and a sympathetic friend. 

Repeat Step Two Divide It Up. Again.
It will probably be easier this time. But you want to make sure the new, abbreviated, rearranged version works.

Step Four Play Around with the Relationship Between Words and Images
This is not as kinky as it sounds. Great picture books pair text and illustrations like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced -- not like those clumsy partners who get eliminated in the first two rounds of Dancing with the Stars (or in some cases, magically last until the final rounds...). The words and images dance together so seamlessly they create something new and magical that's better than anything those superstar dancers could do by themselves. Look for places where the text can contradict the illustration (and thereby add humor), for places where the images can push the text to save something more, something profound or profoundly silly, that the words just don't say by themselves.

Step Five  Now Write Your Perfect Final Draft
Create that lovely language with rhythm and alliteration. Find perfect rhymes or coin silly new words. Figure out a line that will become a national catchphrase. It's okay to invest that effort now because you have cut away all the fat already and what you have left is lean and beautiful and ready to be in front of the camera, or at least an editor's eyes. Your story and words will shine because they are no longer obscured by unnecessary clutter.

Final Step Share a Cup of Delicious Mocha Hot Chocolate with a Friend

Here's a recipe that 's pretty darned good (and really pretty easy, except for not eating the chocolate before you get around to making your drink). The key is to use GOOD chocolate and GOOD coffee.

1 cup of milk (I personally think lowfat is fine, especially if you top your cup with a little whipped cream...)
1 cup leftover from breakfast strong-brewed, really good coffee
4 oz. best quality dark chocolate, chopped
Sugar or sweetener, if desired. (Start with one teaspoon - I'm personally happy without.)
Other options: teaspoon of vanilla, 1/2 tsp cinnamon (or use a cinnamon stick to stir it), dash of hot pepper sauce (surprisingly good), dash of sea salt (also surprisingly good)
Two dollops whipped cream, preferably homemade. You could use marshmallows instead, but I would pity you; whipped cream is gobs better
Extra grated chocolate for garnish, if desired

Heat the milk, coffee and chopped chocolate over medium heat to desired temperature. I like to whisk the mixture to make it frothy. You could also use one of those handheld blender thingies if you like it really foamy. Taste and add any additions that tickle your fancy. Garnish with whipped cream and grated chocolate. Share!


  1. Easy to follow steps that have a lot of merit, even for novelists. Cutting the extras and playing with words and images can only help writers of all genres. I have whipped cream left from thanksgiving that will be perfect for a cup of mocha hot chocolate tomorrow. can't wait!

  2. Great insight into the mind of an illustrator, Carol. This will surely help improve my writing.

  3. Thanks Laurie! (And, belatedly, Carol and Dave!)
    Writing this up was helpful to me too - and now I read it over before starting a new dummy. Really helps me let go of unnecesary words, which is always hard for me.

  4. Carol, this is a really thoughtful post, also funny and interesting--just like you. Ignoring fact #1, your post makes me want to pull out a picture-book manuscript that I've always liked.