Monday, April 9, 2012

Writing Without Pictures: Guest Author, Susanna Leonard Hill

I am thrilled to introduce a new series on my blog about Picture Book writers who DO NOT illustrate.

Recently, while struggling with a manuscript, I went to my own bookshelf for inspiration and discovered that almost all of my books were from Author/Illustrators. I didn't have any books that were written by one person and illustrated by another. I realized that I needed to seek out Picture Book writers who did not illustrate their own work as a way of discovering my own process and place in the Picture Book World. I needed to find my peeps!


On Mondays for the month of April, I will be spotlighting a Picture Book writer who will share their experiences with "writing without pictures".


Today I welcome Susanna Leonard Hill!  Susanna is author of Punxsutawney Phyllis, April Fools Phyllis, and Can't Sleep Without Sheep.  I consider Susanna a major inspiration and a wonderful person who is never too busy to help out us fellow pre-pubbies. 

I am honored she is here to share!  Here is Susanna!

There's a lot to learn in the world of picture books! What language, length, and subject matter are appropriate? Is it okay to write about talking animals or inanimate objects? And what about art? If you're a writer only, how do you allow for the equally important other half of a picture book? How does a writer know how much room to leave an illustrator? How much direction can you, as an author, give?

When Marcie asked me to address this question, I had to laugh. Obviously, it's on people's minds of late, because only a couple weeks before I had talked about the same thing on my own blog.

Here is the link, if you're interested. There are some excellent comments at the bottom, some from other published picture book authors.
http://www.facebook.com/l/tAQFFu4SFAQEPMjKgsnO-AFQ5kcJnXZ3KbwaKTic-EcDXdQ/susannahill.blogspot.com/2012/03/pitch-pick-6-and-oh-susanna-how-does-pb.html

I think what it really comes down to is a combination of strong writing and thinking visually. Your illustrator needs changes of scene, perspective, and emotion - plenty to choose from so that the pictures can vary from page to page. They also need freedom to express the story in their way - many books have whole other story lines told in the illustrations that were the brain child of the illustrator, or hidden characters or objects that children can look for, or indications as to the time of day, season, or other setting details that bring the story to life in ways you might not have foreseen.
Marcie asked about what happens if you overwrite by 20 words or so to get your image across. When you talk about overwriting by 20 words or so, what exactly are those words saying/trying to accomplish? Some details (like what color the MC's hair is) do not need to be spelled out. Unless it is critical to the story that her hair is red, leave it out and let the illustrator draw what he/she imagines. It may not be what you imagined, but those details aren't the ones that matter. It's the MC's character and motivation that matter.. The illustrator needs to pick up the feel of your character from your words, so that when they draw your character her determination or shyness or grumpiness or sense of humor shine through.
As an example, when I wrote Punxsutawney Phyllis, it never occurred to me that when the book was painted the groundhogs would be wearing clothes! I pictured them plain furry and brown with cute little faces, but I didn't get any farther than that. When the book showed up and they were all dressed, was it exactly the way I had pictured it? Not quite. But did it make sense? Absolutely! How else for a child reader to easily distinguish one from another? And did it harm the story in any way? Not at all! The critical element - Phyllis's spunky character - came through beautifully - even enhanced by Jeff's choice of green overalls with a yellow flower on the pocket for her.
Does any of that make sense? Feel free to ask follow up questions in the comments below - I will check in :)
In terms of what gets cut, that's a tricky question. An editor may want to cut any number of things for reasons other than illustration. But sometimes once a picture is drawn, there are words that are no longer necessary, so out they come. I gave an example in the blog post above from Can't Sleep Without Sheep, where once the illustrations was complete, some of the words about the hippos were no longer necessary and the story read better without them.
When I write, I always think visually. I can see the story in my head like a movie - kind of funny because I can't draw to save myself. I can't tell you how to do that, or even if it's necessary - it's just how my mind works. I know that's not particularly helpful!

I can tell you one story, though, a situation where I thought everything was crystal clear and it turned out not to be the case. I wrote a story called No Sword Fighting In The House. The characters names were Arthur, Lance and Gwenn. The father was the King who worked at the castle, the mother belonged to the Camelot Ladies Garden Society. Now before I say anything else, what setting do you imagine?

I imagined a medieval setting - knights, horses, castles, armor etc. The illustrator drew modern day suburbia.

So sometimes things aren't as clear as they seem!

One of the things I didn't know when I was first published was how little authors and illustrators work together. The publishing house chooses the illustrator for you. (Maybe when you're Jane Yolen or someone you get some say :) but as a first-time author, it's out of your hands.) Then, depending on your editor and the particular publishing house's policy, you may not get even a glimpse of the art until it's done. With one exception (Can't Sleep Without Sheep) I have never gotten to see my art in process. I understand the reasons for it, but it does make waiting for the art a bit of a nail-biter. Will your illustrator have the same vision you did? Will he or she draw anything like what you imagined? For the most part, I have been incredibly lucky. Jeff, Nicole, and Mike have been particularly wonderful to work with! But surprises do pop up from time to time - like the setting in No Sword Fighting, or how with my first book, The House That Mack Built, I wrote a whole spread about a bulldozer only to find when I got the proofs that the illustrator had drawn a loader. No self-respecting 2 year old would let that go by! It was too late to change the art, so I had to change the story! But in my experience, it generally works out in the end :)

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Marcie! And if anyone has any questions, fire away :)


Susanna lives in Poughquag, NY.  She is a successful author and has published many titles!  Check her out at www.susannahill.com, or read her blog at http://susannahill.blogspot.com. 

26 comments:

  1. Man, I had already a vivid scene in my mind of Arthur, Lance and Gwenn at the ROUND castle-kitchen table! Suburbia, wow!

    I was surprised that when you got the proofs with the loader instead of a bulldozer (and yes, many two year olds could describe these differences in detail) that it was too late to make changes. I would have thought time would be allowed for such discussion before printing.

    Like you I visualize the story as I write.

    I think that as a non-ilustrator the first time you see one of your stories illustrated must be pretty special, no?

    Of course with Ebooks, we are now seeing the possibility of more closer collaboration between artist and writer. I am doing a collaboration now and have seen one illustration of my five characters and just loved it!

    Thank you Marcie and Susanna for this practical post.

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    1. By the time I receive the art it's done, usually. It's not just a question of time, but also of expense - they don't want to redo it!

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  2. Great interview Marcie and Susannah! Glad you are finding your 'peeps' Marcie!

    Loved the clothed groundhog example, Susannah.

    Pronunciation guide question...
    Poughquag = Po-kwag? Poo-kwug?

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    1. That would be Po-kwayg. If you are local, the accent is on the second syllable :)

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  3. This was a resourceful and informative interview, ladies. Susanna, thank you for being so open. How can an illustrator know how you want a specific scene to open if the words are there to guide? Ex. A light mist settles over Canyon Valley. The glow of the morning welcomes new beginnings. Stillness is interrupted. Mama hears the first cries of her newborn. Do you give up control of losing those words and just...TRUST? (crude 1st draft).

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    1. In most picture books you wouldn't have room for all those words anyway. Too much description - that is the illustrator's job - the painting takes the place of all that description. "Early morning" or "sunrise" might be as much as you could say, and then let the illustrator draw it as he/she envisions. If the mist is critical to the story, you can mention it, but otherwise you might love your words, but if they don't really advance the story, you have to let the illustrator set the scene.

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  4. Thanks for more insight into this subject. It is something that is stressed so often when you read about what to put in your text...leave room for the illustrator. Susanna, your words clarify things! Your detailed examples are really helpful, too! I'm going to have to get No Sword Fighting In The House! The cover art is really cute! I would've thought medieval, too!
    Thanks for the post, Marcie :-)

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    1. When I got the proofs for NSF I thought at first that they had sent me the wrong book! :)

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  5. GREAT series idea Marcie. I often feel I am at a disadvantage to author/illustrators and it will be nice to hear about the process other writers go through. Thanks, Susanna for giving us your insights. It's tough to get into that mindset.

    I'm curious about books that use speech bubbles in the pictures. Does the writer decide that, and write the text for all the bubbles? Or is that something the illustrator would bring up? I could see that working really well in my current MS but not sure if now is the moment to take the plunge and write it that way. I see that you have a link to No Dogs Allowed in your post so I will follow that and check it out. Sounds promising. Thanks!

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    1. Speech bubbles could technically work either way, I think. If I wanted them, I would write them. But if an illustrator envisioned them, I'm not sure whether s/he would decide what to put in them or whether the editor would ask me to supply words - it's never come up for me.

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  6. Marcie, thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your series. It's such a great idea, and something I wish I'd had available when I was first learning!

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    1. You, rock, Susanna! I consider you a mentor. So wonderfully willing to always be there with an encouraging and wise word. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I only wish the formatting would get worked out on this post. Still working on it...

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  7. Great interview Marcie and Susanna. I especially liked you comment about thinking visually as you write. And, of course my visual may be completely different from the illustrator's visual, as you commented. I think so many of us wish we were illustrators as well.

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    1. OH, I know I do, Pat! I WISH I could draw!!! :)

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  8. Thanks as always for letting us learn from you, Susanna. I've even found in nonfiction, one has to think visually. Often, I can't really write a piece about an animal until I've seen several pictures of it in its habitat or video clips of the animal in action, for example.

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    1. That's very true! Any picture book needs visual thinking, I think - fiction or non.

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  9. Oh, how frustrating to have an illustrator that didn't do their research! (bulldozer vs loader) Thank you for sharing your experiences, Susanna, this was a very interesting post!

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    1. And this was someone who had done MANY vehicle books!

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  10. Wonderful interview, Susanna and Marcie! Loved your specific, detailed examples of illustration blunders, etc... Like you, I can't draw, but I can often see the story running in my head. I wonder what the characters will look like some day...(dreaming)

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    1. They will be awesome, Tina! :) But you already have tons of books out, don't you? All those early readers?

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  11. Loved reading about your experiences, Susanna. I know with my early reader stories, I picture it all in my head and put in ideas for illustration (this is an independent publisher, so we can do what we want!), but the illustrations always come back better than I imagined. Annoying about the bulldozer, though - that would drive me nuts!

    And I can't imagine Phyllis without her overalls, so yay for Jeffrey for his sartorial savvy!

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    1. I know it - those overalls were a stroke of genius :) Actually, it's very fun - I have original sketches of Phyllis from Jeff, from when he was deciding what she should look like (although I didn't see them to well after the book was published when I asked him for some samples I could bring on school visits) and the whole book could have looked so different! There's one sketch where she looks downright girly - it would have been all wrong! :)

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  12. How fascinating! Thanks for sharing this insight Susanna. I've always wondered what it would be like to see how someone else would envision one of my stories. And I can understand why you were so surprised to get Suburbia with No Sword Fighting in the House!

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    1. It kind of funny, because you picture things in your own head a certain way, and then you really just have to wait and see what the illustrator comes up with. I think the one that was the absolute closest for me was Can't Sleep Without Sheep, although since Ava is based on my son I pictured her blond :)

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  13. Interesting series. And, I always try to read Susanna's interviews, so I don't mistakenly ask her questions later.

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