Monday, October 29, 2012

WriWOPi: Deborah Underwood

Blogging straight to you from Frankenstorm today in NYC!  It takes more than an epic storm to hold us kidlit writers back.To everyone in the storm's path, please be safe.  Stay home.  Read.  Write.  Just think of the influx of storm stories that will flood editors desk in about 6 months.  :)
But, the show must go on at The Write Routine.  And today I have a very special guest. 
I fell in love with THE QUIET BOOK the second I picked it up.  Deborah Underwood's simple, yet endearing words matched with the amazing illustrations of Renata Liwska is pure picture book magic!  Along with THE LOUD BOOK and THE CHRISTMAS QUIET BOOK, I think we are witnessing the creation of some classics.
Please welcome Deborah Underwood....
Leaving room for the illustrator is one of the most important lessons for picture book writers. And I’m sorry to say it took me about six years to learn it. SIX YEARS. I think that was because I didn’t really understand why we need to leave room, why we shouldn’t write a lot of description. Now--finally!--I do.

Here’s an exercise I like to do in my writing workshops. Please get out your crayons and play along:

First, draw a house. It can be any kind of house--a person house, a dog house, a bird house, a Martian house. It can be any shape, any size, any color.

Done? Good. Now draw a white, two-story house with a red roof, green shutters, and a pink plastic flamingo in the front yard.

I suspect if I collected and displayed all your virtual papers, your first drawings would be wonderfully diverse and imaginative. The second ones? Less diverse. Less imaginative.

Because with every descriptor I gave, I took a choice away from you. You wanted it to be a purple house? Too bad; I said white. You thought it would have been great to make the house seven rickety stories tall? It might have been great, but you couldn’t do it, because I said two stories. You wanted a burlwood ogre in the garden? Nope; it had to be a flamingo.

So there it is. Every descriptive word in a picture book limits your illustrator.

This lesson was powerfully brought home to me when we were working on THE QUIET BOOK. In my manuscript, “Coloring in the lines quiet,” was followed by “Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall with a green crayon quiet.”

My wonderful editor, Kate O’Sullivan, suggested deleting “with a green crayon.”

I resisted. I whined. I said I liked the specificity of the green crayon. Kate didn’t think we needed it. I reluctantly acquiesced.

Thank goodness! Because this is how the brilliant Renata Liwska chose to illustrate those lines:

The moose’s self-portrait on the wall is one of my favorite parts of the book. If Renata had been limited to showing a green crayon, she might not have come up with that idea--what self-respecting moose draws himself in green? The green crayon business was completely gratuitous. It would have tied Renata’s hands. And the book would have been diminished.

 When I finally had the pleasure of meeting Renata in person, she said that the spareness of The Quiet Book text had appealed to her, that it had allowed her to immediately begin seeing pictures in her head. She said that if there’s too much description, she feels as if she’s tracing a line that’s already been drawn. If you were an illustrator, would you rather trace or create?

So I learned my lesson. In The Christmas Quiet Book, I wrote text like:



Did Renata need me to tell her what to draw? Clearly not.

But what if you see pictures in your head while you write? What if you know the way your words are supposed to look?

I feel your pain! But think of it this way: what if every time you sat down to write, you had an illustrator hanging over your shoulder saying things like, “Can’t we set the story in Mexico instead of Philadelphia? And can’t the main character be a macaw, instead of a fox? I really like drawing macaws.”

Ridiculous, right? Because it’s not the illustrator’s job to tell you what to write--just as it’s not your job to tell her what to draw.

I, personally, am a total control freak (another reason this lesson has been so difficult for me). But it’s only in letting go that we make space for synergy, that phenomenon in which, because of the contributions of two creative people, the whole truly does become greater than the sum of its parts.

Does that synergy alway materialize? Nope. But it’s worth taking the risk. Because when it does, it’s picture book magic.


  1. What a wonderful post, Deborah! I especially love the ice-skating owl, and agree wholeheartedly that you + Renata = pb magic!

    Thanks Marcie for another great WriWoPi post!

  2. Wonderful post. So excited for you and all these beautiful books you have birthed.

  3. Brillant advice, Deborah!

    How did your vision for these lovely books differ from the end result of Renata's illustrations? The text and pictures are a magical marriage!!

  4. Thank you all! And LJ, for starters, I imagined the books would have human characters, not animal ones! So it's good that I let go of that, eh? :)

  5. Thanks for the great examples, Deborah. I will remember "trace vs. create" while working on my PB texts. And thanks again, Marcie! LOVE WiWoPi!

  6. Thanks Marci, for adding Deborah to your wonderful roster of contributing authors! Deborah had many wonderful exercises to give us in her writing workshop. Hopefully it won't take six years to practice the lessons she gave us.

  7. Great post Deborah. I love your new book!

  8. Thank you Marcie and Deborah! As an illustrator I so appreciate Deborah's words for writers! I'll be sharing this with my some of my critique friends, so they can review my text-only-stage mss without adding descriptive comments too!

  9. Great wisdom here. I would love to take a workshop with Deborah. I know I still have much to learn on creating even sparser text!

  10. This is a great series, Marcie. Thank you, Deborah, for explaining this process to me. The problem I am having, however, is without these words, my ms sounds so sparse or "slight" as most editors like to call it. It is still frustrating for me. I even typed up a PB text and shared it with my crit. group as an exercise and they critiqued it too death like it was not submission-ready. When they learned it was a published piece, hell broke loose. The lesson is we have to all be in the same page. Of course, this industry is subjective.

  11. Marcie, I'm really enjoying this series, and Deborah, thanks for your specific examples. That's so helpful to keep in mind as I go through my own manuscripts.

  12. As an illustrator, I could just kiss you! I've been looking for a way to verbalized this, but never really could. You wrote it brilliantly! Thank you!

  13. Thank you, Deborah, for really showing us with examples here and hitting the nail on the head. I look forward to seeing your Christmas Quiet book! Thanks, Marcie & Deborah!

  14. This looks like a beautiful book. I love picture books that have great illustrations. I'll have to pick this one up for my grandson.

    As for the rest of the post, I'm not an illustrator, but I still found it really interesting. I never thought about it that way.

    And good luck with the storm! Stay safe!!!

  15. Excellent examples and advice. Thanks!

    And...I love your books. they are beautiful. I agree with Marcie...your are creating classics.

  16. Beautiful exposition. I write PBs, Chapter Books, & MG. I find, more than the MC’s age and the word count, it’s the level of description and specificity in the text that defines the genre. PBs are first and foremost the illustrator’s media.

  17. Deborah, your example "draws a picture" for us writers. Thanks for the reminder that a picture books is a cooperative effort.

  18. Thank you all so much for your lovely comments. I hope my experience saves you some time and makes your paths smoother!

  19. LOVED the house example! If that lesson doesn't make us all ten times better as PB writers, I don't know what will! MIND. BLOWN. Thanks so much for this terrific post. So very helpful and entertaining. =) Great series Marcie!

  20. This is something we've been struggling with in my critique group. It's hard to let go, and to be confident that others will "see" the same story we see as writers (or perhaps see an even better one). Incredibly helpful thoughts, Deborah--thanks so much for sharing this.

  21. Okay, I'm a little late to the scene here... but what a FANTASTIC post! LOVED IT! Thank you, Deborah, and thank you, Marcia!

  22. I don't think I'll ever forget this lesson. Thank you for putting it so simply. Such is your talent, I suppose!

  23. Thank you for this direct post! I will be sharing it for sure.

  24. Hopping over from The Children's Book Academy. This is a great post. I'm really struggling with this because when I had no art notes, critique partners were screaming for them, and when I put them in, critique partners were screaming that I should delete them. I can't seem to find that balance between giving freedom and telling a story with sparse text.

    1. It certainly is a balance, Jen. But think of it this way--your job is to make sure that your story is understandable in Word doc form for an editor or agent to read. You are not communicating directly with the illustrator. Therefore, if the illo notes are needed to understand, upon first read, your story, put them in. You don't want any confusion on the editor or agent's part. As for the illustrator, chances are they will not see the illo notes. Many editors do not pass them on. So, no worries there.