Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Working (or not) with Illustrators - Malachy Doyle

People out there in the real world always assume that I’m best buddies with my illustrators. They think we huddle together over a mug of lapsang souchong and hatch out our books.

Now I know there are some classic teams that work like that, but it’s neither the norm nor is it necessary.

Most of my illustrators I’ve never met. We don’t discuss the project on the phone, or by email. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the only time I have any direct contact with them is once the whole thing is done, dusted and published. I make a point at that stage of thanking them, generally by email (and in order to agree PLR shares.)

It’s not that I’m a curmudgeon, particularly. It’s not that I don’t care, passionately, how the book turns out. It’s just that we probably live hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart, and there’s no actual need for us to meet. And that publishers generally seem to like to keep us apart, so that neither one nor the other has an undue influence on the outcome. They don’t want me to say to the illustrator that it’s got to look like THIS (which is actually not my business), or to tell them if I’m not 100% happy with their artwork (which again, although of course I’m desperately hoping I’ll love it, is not my job).

(And, by the way, the publishers also don’t want the illustrator to say to me, ‘Please could you change the wording to make your zebra green, Malachy, because I spilt a pot of paint on him, and I don’t want to have to draw the whole caboodle again.’ Sort of thing.)

I learnt this when one of my very first picture books was being illustrated. The publisher sent me the early roughs. 'We hope you like them as much as we do.' I spent hours and heart's blood compiling a list of comments / reservations / suggestions. Some weeks later I got sent the next stage of illustration. Not a whiff of my suggestions had been incorporated. I asked why. ‘Oh, the illustrator’s far too sensitive to hear that sort of thing.’ Hmm.

But the thing was, they were right and I was wrong, really. Because even though the book ended up a long long way from how I’d envisaged it, somehow it worked. Because what I hadn’t realised until then is that the art of illustration is NOT about translating the words into pictures. It’s about going beyond and beneath and around the words, and the characters within them, to make that story richer, deeper, funnier and massively more enthralling. That’s what a good illustrator does. That’s what a good art editor is working towards. And that’s why, these days, I leave them to it.

Because since that early book I’ve realised my job is to provide the best story I possibly can, with some (minimal) illustration guidelines if I consider they’re absolutely necessary for editors to make sense of what’s happening. And then, unless I REALLY REALLY REALLY can’t help myself, my job is to stay shtum. It’s like selling your novel to a film company. Respond to what they do with it if you’re asked, but basically stand back... cross your fingers... breathe deeply. And write another one. An even better one, if such a thing is possible.

And if the book comes back and there's a dog on the cover, like in my Owen and the Mountain, even though there’s no dog mentioned in the story, then hold fire...

And if the dog appears on nearly every page, and becomes the emotional pivot of the story, though yours truly the blessed author never even mentioned a dog... then hold fire. Because maybe it works. Because it this case, it does work. It works beautifully.

Because I’m not a visual artist. Yes, I sort of see pictures as I write. Yes, I try to bear in mind that it's good to have a different setting or activity on every spread, to allow for variety of illustration. But the pictures I see as I write are not the ones I’ll see, or even want to see, when I’m presented with the finished book. Often the finished illustrations delight me, sometimes they astound me. (Like Joel Stewart’s wonderfully sensitive and surprising portrayal of my seemingly mis-matched characters in When a Zeeder Met a Xyder. Like Jane Ray putting an Eastern European Marc Chagall-ish feel on my, as I thought distinctly Irish story, The Bold Boy).

My newest one, Too Noisy! is out very soon from Walker Books / Candlewick. (At the time of publication I’ll be away from all the chaos and kerfuffle, walking the Via de la Plata - all 1000 kilometres of it hopefully, from Seville to Santiago de Compostela - which is why I’m telling you about the book now, if you don't mind).

It’s illustrated by the phenomenally talented Ed Vere (that's me, not him, by the way, on the top of a cold mountain), and he does something in this book to convey character that I’ve never seen before. Something truly rare and special. It is SO SO visual, SO SO beautiful, and it ends up SO SO central to not just the look but the plot, that I feel like not only has Ed illustrated my story, but he’s sort of co-written it too.

Who needs to get together round a table and drink lapsang souchong? What you need is an author on top form, an illustrator who’s inspired, and a genius editor and art editor who put their heart and their hoes into it. And then, through hard work and alchemy, abracadabra, you've got yourself a near-perfect picture book. And, in this case, it’s got my name on it. TOO NOISY!


33 comments:

  1. What a delightful and insightful post, Malachy.
    Thank you.

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    1. And thank you Anthea for the first, and a most positive, comment!

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  2. Absolutely agree 100%! You have to step back and the let the illustrator do his or her job. In any picture book, 50% of the book is the text and 50% is the illustration - and that means 50% of the interpretation, magic, connotations, even 50% of the story (eg adding the dog). That's why they get 50% of the PLR and 50% of the royalties.

    That said, I always check roughs carefully because sometimes you *do* pick up on things that will be a terrible mistake. Most recently, I spotted all the 'dinosaurs' were actually no known species of dinosaur, but were actually dragons. That sort of thing has to be fixed, and well before the final artwork when it's costly to change things.

    Super post - thank you. I will add it to my list of useful articles for students.

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    1. Thanks Anne. And I agree totally about checking roughs very closely to make sure that the pictures a)match the text and b)make sense. Every stage I'm sent something, text or pictures, I treat it as my last chance to comment.

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  3. In my second book 'The Best Jumper' I noticed in the roughs a small item had been left out on the first spread. As this made an appearance later in the story it had to be squeezed in. And when the roughs for 'Dog Did It' arrived I was surprised my character who I'd always seen as a grown up was now a child. But as I read that first rough draft I realised I'd been wrong and Boris had been a child all along!

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    1. Thanks Lynne - good examples of how we authors need to proof-read the pictures too, but also how the illustrations can take the story further and make it clearer and stronger.

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  4. Thank you for such an interesting post! I illustrate children's books, and so it's wonderful to be able to read about the book process from the author's point of view!

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    1. Good to hear from illustrators (and publishers). We're all picture book makers together, presumably with the same aim in mind - to make the best possible books.

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  5. A wonderful explanation of the process and contributions of all the people who make a book 'happen' in the best possible way.

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  6. Brilliant post, Malachy. Must admit, I've changed my text to fit in with illustrations, and sometimes when I've seen the b /w roughs I've made suggestions that have then been incorporatated. I suppose it varies.

    By the way, I wonder why it's the opposite with early reading scheme books. With these, authors are often instructed to supply detailed illustration notes. I found this hard to do without feeling incredibily guilty that I was stepping on illustrators' toes.

    Presume you're bringing a notebook with you on your walking holiday?!

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    1. Thanks Paeony. Yes, very occasionally I'll suggest word changes once I see the roughs, if it'll improve the story. But I get annoyed when editors ask me to alter text because 'it's too late to change the artwork'.
      And yes, I never like having to do those 'detailed illustration notes' for some educational publishers. It's neither my job nor my field of expertise.
      I'll not be blogging from the Camino - I want a break from all that - but yes, I'll definitely have a notebook, so there may be something at the end. In fact my next blog here on Picture Book Den is October 31, four days after I get back from Spain, so I suspect I'll build it in somehow.

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  7. Excellent post and very truthful. I have had mixed experiences with illustrations for my books. The best illustrations lift the words to another level and go beyond the author's imagination. I love it when I see something in there unexpected that works. That said, I remember being really pleased with the rough drafts for one particular book then being really surprised when the final artwork was by someone else. The publisher had switched illustrators ... to the detriment of the book too. I do think that you are lucky to work with a range of illustrators ... means your books never look the same and are constantly surprising in a good way. Best wishes

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    1. Thanks Alan. They certainly shouldn't have switched illustrators without telling you. And yes, I very much enjoy the wide range of illustrative style that's been brought to my books.

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  8. Thanks, Malachy. So true about having to let go, but like you said, be sure to check roughs very, very carefully. I've had changes incorporated whenever they've made more 'sense' of the story (a door handle low down so a character could actually have got out of the house when she was meant to be stuck/a chair placed where the child could climb on it and sort out a problem which she wasn't meant to be able to sort out etc.) and to be 'neater' (I asked that they flip images on a double spread so they'd be more strategically placed alongside the relevant text). But everything else, you have to learn to leave.

    In contrast to you, Malachy, I LOVE giving really specific illustration notes for the educational books, because you're writing the story and the story is partly told through the pictures, particularly in those books with few words. I guess I'm just a frustrated author-illustrator who absolutely can't illustrate so that's as close as I'll get to seeing the story as I really mean it to be. I've let go a lot on the picture book front but for stories with few words it's really tricky. For the educational ones, I believe that illustrators are paid a fee rather than a royalty and so they are being told specifically what to do. I guess it would be too expensive/too time-consuming to have the illustrator interpret it as he or she would with a picture book.

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    1. Yes, Clare, but if they need to present the illustrators with very specific instructions, then I think the editors should do that, not the author.

      These days most educational publishers are paying authors on a fee basis, too.

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  9. Oooh didn't say, how exciting about Ed Vere! That'll be fantastic. And I agree about Joel Stewart's illustrations for When a Zeeder Met a Xyder. The perfect author-illustrator combination -and without your needing to discuss it.

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    1. Two of the very best. And I wouldn't dream of telling either of them what to do.

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  10. Speaking from the 'other side of the desk' as a publisher, it's so nice to hear an author who actually understands what we do and why we're needed. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks for that. It's never MY book - it's OUR book - me, the illustrator AND the publishing team. Without your talent, expertise and enthusiasm, there'd be nothing.

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  11. It's so interesting to hear how other authors and illustrators work. I think, like Clare, I must be a frustrated author/illustrator as the visual aspect of my books is so important to me and I sketch (appallingly badly) as I write. I never show the sketches to anyone but it helps me pace and plot and so in that respect I consider the illustrated spreads from the very beginning stage of working. I also set up jokes or characterisation that need to come out in the pictures.

    I don't think there is a hard and fast rule about how much involvement an author has with the illustrator. With some of my books I have been very involved but with others not at all. It slightly depends on the editorial style of the publisher and the relationship of trust that has been built up between author/editor/illustrator. Today I went in to see the thumbnails of the next Fairytale Hairdresser book and my lovely editor and I spread them all out over the desk and had a long chat about every spread including the placement of the text and the colours to be used as well as changes he or I wanted. I think this works because The Fairytale Hairdresser is a series and so the three of us have built up a rapport. Whatever the reason I love this side of the job and I think that if you do it right it doesn't undermine the role of the illustrator. The illustrator on my books is absolutely fantastic and it is very much due to her talent and creativity that the books have worked so well - I just make small tweaks here and there!

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    1. I'm all for that level of co-operation, Abie. Some regular author / illustrator teams work superbly well together, like Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross... And I can see that for a picture book series, it could be a very productive method. It's just not how I normally work, or how I particularly want to work. My area of expertise is story, and I want people whose area of expertise is illustration to take control of the look of the thing - and to achieve lift-off.

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  12. And isn't it a treat when that alchemy of words and pictures happens, turning your part of the story into something you couldn't achieve on your own? I love it!
    Have a wonderful Spanish trip.

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    1. Absolutely, Pippa. I love it to bits. Still.

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  13. Very timely read for me - have just been preparing questions for an interview with Carll Cneut! Thanks for the insight into the process.

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    1. Great! I love seeing how my illustrators respond to the challenges I set them - like how to draw a shrinking boy. Carll's illustrations in 'Antonio on the other side of the world, getting smaller' are some of my very favourites.

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  14. Excellent post, Malachy.
    I recall my trepidation when my editor said she wanted David Wojtowycz to illustrate What Colour is Love? because his style was not the soft pastels I had imagined. But when I saw the first roughs I loved the bold images and the way he had interpreted the story on the page.
    I have worked with lots of different illustrators and it is that wonderful effect of someone else taking your text and moving it in ways you would never have imagined, adding a whole new dimension.
    I think there are some important points in both the blog and the comments - you do have to check over the roughs in detail. I have also had to suggest a double page spread was flipped to make it more relevant to the text, and removal of a dog (in an educational book) because it became too much of a focus on the page, both agreed by my editor.
    When writing the illustration brief for an educational book I tend to put in as little as I can leaving the illustrator room, but I have found that the editor often enlarges on it before sending on to the illustrator.
    On the other side things I have worked happily and successfully for the last 8 years with Sally J. Collins, the illustrator for the Hamish McHaggis series. On our 10th book now we find that it is an organic process where I start by giving her an outline of the story and then we discuss the layout. While I am writing the text she begins outlining some roughs and working up any new characters before we come together again to toss ideas about, which I find creatively stimulating.
    By the next time we meet I have a complete text which I am ready to do some final editing on, and she will have fairly detailed roughs. Once the editor has gone over it, we continue to keep in touch (easier because we live fairly close together, but also by email) and at the very end, when her illustrations are complete, we meet to do the final check over and to add in the little hidden mini beast on each page. It is a collaborative process that we have refined over the years and we find it works well for us.
    I have tried working in different ways and this is the only time I have ever worked like this so I cannot say it would work in other situations, but it is a lot of fun.
    It is fascinating to see how other people work, It shows that there is no absolute right or wrong way.
    Thanks Malachy, and have a great trip!

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    1. Thanks for coming in on this Linda - Hamish McHaggis is a fine example of the co-operative process in action. Though I'm perfectly happy with the way I work, I'd love to be a part of something like that sometime too.

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  15. What a wonderful post, so honest and insightful!
    A great, great read, thank you!

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  16. Malachy - I loved this post. When my first book, THE TIME TREE, was published way back then (by Walker Books) I made contact with the cover designer because I thought this was normal good human behaviour - and she was astonished! We asked her and her husband round to supper, because they were aproximately local, and we've been friends ever since.

    You're clearly going on a pilgrimage, not a walking holiday, and I'd love to hear more - maybe less publicly? We have a friend who did this several months ago, in order to think/meditate. I'm tempted, but my walking at present isn't brilliant.

    I've loved all my illustrators' work, and would reiterate your comment that they bring out details/personalities that we, as writers, never dreamed about.

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    1. I agree absolutely with your point about good human behaviour, Enid. And like you, I have in fact become good friends with a number of my illustrators.

      Yes, the Camino is an ancient pilgrimage route and thought I'm not conventionally religious, I'm looking forward immensely to the communion with all those who have ever walked it, with the communities along the way who support it, and to two months of meditative striding. I've no idea what will come of it - I shall live in the moment and see what transpires.

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  17. This article is very interesting in the sense that I have collaborated at a close level with everyone who has worked on a any project that I have been working on.
    I suppose within Ireland there is such a small population in relation to other European countries that this model of working is feasible.
    Love that new book Malachy and I wish you all the success it deserves!

    Andrew Whitson.

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    1. Thanks Andrew. Yes, the way An tSnathaid Mhor operates works brilliantly for you, but is definitely the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the larger publishers.

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