• Esther Harder

From Notes to Sketches

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Author-Illustrator Collaboration, Part I

During my MFA studies in Children's Writing, I learned that was that there is limited, if any collaboration between author and illustrator in the traditional publishing process. Instead, they are treated as separate artistic entities to protect and support their creative processes. When the illustrator has sample pages ready for review, the author may be consulted to check for factual accuracy or internal consistency, but in general, author and illustrator work mostly independently.

Pencil sketch of a child leaning over a railing with a thoughtful pose.
Meet Elia, my main character.

This is NOT the case in self-publishing. By hiring Dana, I became publisher as well as author, and would therefore be responsible for all editorial decisions.

I came to picture book writing by way of novel writing, so for much of my work, the imaginary film running in my head as I wrote chapters and scenes never made it to the big screen. I simply couldn't be sure how my readers would interpret my work or what imaginary film they were seeing as they read. I was so excited for the illustration process of Quarantine Kids. Not only would I get to suggest elements of the illustration that were most important to me, but I would finally get to see one of my stories leap out of my head and into full color!

First, the Storyboard

Before I sent my manuscript to my illustrator, I blocked out my content on a storyboard. This is typically part of my picture book editing process, as storyboarding helps to point out places in the text that may need trimming or more action.

I don't use a storyboard template. I count out physical sheets of paper and fold them in half over themselves to form a booklet and then do my work in pencil (the easier to erase, my dear).

A typical picture book tends to run 32 pages long, with some variation. Whether this number can be adjusted, or needs to remain in a multiple of 2 or 4, depends on whether one is printing a physical copy; number of pages is dictated by type of printer. Another structural element to keep in mind is that some of your page count will get taken up by front and back matter, also somewhat determined by how your printer counts end sheets.

Grab a couple picture books and take a closer look. You'll typically find these pages somewhere in the lineup:

  • A colorful end sheet, where one side is glued to the cover, and the other is free (in both the beginning and end of the book). Some printers count this in the page count; others don't.

  • A title page that includes title, author, illustrator, and publisher info. In some books, the artwork for the title page might actually create a spread (two pages).

  • A copyright and dedication page. These can be combined; in some books they are separate, or the dedication might show up on a title page spread.

I wanted to save most of my pages for my story, so I kept my title and copyright/dedication pages to one page each, and my end sheets did not contribute to page count, so I planned on using 30 pages to tell my story.

I don't do much sketching on my storyboard, as I don't want to get distracted from the editing process. Instead, I write out the text I expect to be on a certain page or spread and then consider whether the amount of action described in that text can be contained by that page/spread. I find that it helps to describe the action by writing it onto the page in brackets, like stage directions in a play. It helps me wrestle with just how much action I am trying to compress into one page. If I can't describe the action adequately in a sentence or two, it's unlikely to work as a clean illustration.

I also pay attention to page turns and use them to heighten suspense, so if a character needs to be surprised by something, that something should take place on a left-hand page, which is revealed by a page turn.

After a lot of erasing and reconsidering, I typically emerge with a highly trimmed story that's ready for some images!

Illustrator Notes

Dana was prepared to do the storyboard blocking as part of her initial process, but since I had already put in the effort, I sent her my manuscript with my suggested text per page labelled for her. I did make clear that if, in her work with the text, she found my text blocking to be too constraining, she should absolutely make a different suggestion.

The other big addition to my manuscript at this stage were the copious illustrator notes. In traditional publishing, illustrator notes are encouraged for non-negotiable details on the part of the author. In other words, details the author intends for the story, which are not explicitly described in the text. I included such details, but went beyond non-negotiables to describe goals and suggestions for each page, such as:

  • There were some additional layers to the story that I wanted readers to discover in the images, like a secret that would make them feel unique for noticing.

  • I had strong opinions on the cultural makeup of my characters, so I wanted us to be working with a diverse cast from the beginning.

  • One way I had saved on word count was to trim any setting or character description that could be illustrated instead, so those descriptions went into the illustrator notes.

Manuscript sent, I waited with great anticipation to see the result.

First Sketches

Dana worked up general character sketches to use as models, as well as sketches for each page. She identified which pages she thought would work better as illustrated spreads, an industry term for two pages being treated as one and having one major image spreading across both, and which would need to be a combination of bleed (full-page image) and vignette (illustration with white margins). Bleeds and vignettes go hand in hand because when you are looking at two open pages that have very different action, it is jarring to have both images touch; your mind will want to read the page as one image, but there is more going on.

Dana also dropped my text onto the pages where she imagined it might fit, which served as a strong visual reminder of pages that were still too text-heavy. For example, in this early draft, it was obvious this page was overloaded with too many goals: I needed Elia, my main character, to be introduced. I needed her mom to spoil her anticipation of going to school, and I needed Elia to offer alternative activities. With the space for one illustration, we lose some of Elia's energy and creativity.

Sketch of young daughter getting dressed while mother talks to her from doorway of bedroom. Many stuffed animals in the room.

Seeing this sketch convinced me I needed to rearrange layout so that Elia got a page to shine alone in all her excitement of going back to school, until... [PAGE TURN] ...she discovers that school's still closed!

I went through the first sketches, paying close attention to artistic decisions as well as text distribution, and submitted a few revision requests, but overall, the experience of witnessing my characters come to life in someone else's hands was an absolute delight. I found myself peering at these sketches long after I had given my approval for them to be worked into full-color drafts. Even with my detailed illustrator notes, Dana had created elements that had never occurred to me. The story was alive and had become ours.

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