When it comes to industry experience, the wolf is but a cub. That doesn’t stop people asking questions though. Bring on the questions! (Well, apart from the ‘Deathly Question’ further down). Here are some of my answers – all the sole opinion of the author/illustrator. I’ll add to the list as the questions come.
Should I illustrate in one style or many?
There are loads of amazing children’s illustrators out there who have a strong, instantly recognisable illustration style, such as Bob Graham, Tony Ross, Lydia Monks and Lauren Child. But there are other illustrators who tend to use different materials and compositional styles for different projects, and are continually evolving their style and processes – David Roberts, Emily Gravett and Oliver Jeffers all do this.
What all these people have in common, though, is that their illustrations express the story and emotions of their characters in the perfect way for that story. If you focus on doing this, then – once you get all your work together – you’ll find you have a stronger personal style than you thought. If, like The Wolf, you’re wildly excited by different and new art materials, then illustrate using lots of different media and techniques. If you really love your current style, then keep doing that. And conversely, if you don’t like the way your characters look, then work on them until you DO like them. Ultimately though, if you put effort into understanding the technicalities of the medium/media you use, developing your skill level and using materials appropriately, then that enjoyment and skill will shine through and people will love your work.
I have a wonderfully silly idea for a children’s book! Will anyone like it though? Aren’t children silly themselves?
Is your book going be funny? It needs to be silly and FUNNY. Just like children, books are enjoyable when they’re both silly and funny. But, also like children, when they’re just being silly… well… they tend to go off a little… (glares at nearby wolf cub)
Should I just publish my book myself?
Um. It depends. Do you want to be a career author and or illustrator? Do you want to keep writing for children? Do you have lots of different story ideas? If you answered yes to one or more of those questions I’d say “don’t self publish”. See here for why. But, there are at least TWO situations where you might want to self-publish:
ONE: if you just want to have a few copies of your story for friends and family then yes, of course self-publish, if you have the means and don’t care about making money from your book.
TWO: another time you may want to self-publish is when you: know the industry; know your audience (it may be quite specialised); have access to decent editors, designers and illustrators; have the knowledge and energy to promote your books; can get your books distributed; and have a clear idea of how much you can expect to earn on each book. For example, Adam Wallace has self-published several books and has done very well, but Adam is a HUGELY energetic and driven person. He has lots of industry contacts and is also published traditionally. Another example of knowledgeable self-publishing is the guide My Awesome Bali Adventure. Here, the authors have broad industry experience and contacts and there’s a niche market, which the authors are immersed in.
I got my first gig! Eeek! Hooray! Now I’m staring at the manuscript. What is the process of illustrating a picture book?
Well, everyone’s different. But there is a general order to things, so this is how I’ve been doing it: I read the manuscript and let it percolate a little. Then I sketch some of the characters, accepting that they will evolve throughout the process. Then I go back to the manuscript and work out the scenes on a million different bits of cheap photocopy paper. Usually the editor will have broken down the text into page breaks, so I try to work to this unless I think a slightly different pagination will work at certain points. All this may take a few days. Also, the publisher may want to see character roughs before going further, so I may do these first. Then, after a bit of to-and-fro and approvals from the editorial team, I get going on the storyboard, laying the scenes out on a grid of 24 or 32 sides. I find this very enjoyable – see my post on storyboarding. This work can take 1-3 weeks. I then send the storyboard to the publisher, broken down into spreads and, once this is approved, I start on roughs – see here – usually sketches at actual size. Once roughs are approved, I work them up and scan them at 350dpi, before tweaking and completing to final art level using PhotoShop on my computer (how much I use PhotoShop varies from project to project)… I save my layered PhotoShop files as CMYK tiffs with 5-10mm bleed and whizz to the publisher using DropBox. Phew. It’s often a mountain of work, so I try not to get overwhelmed and just focus and re-focus on telling the story.
And do read Sarah McIntyre’s blog, starting here.
I am an aspiring children’s book illustrator and am currently putting my folio together. So far, feedback has been that my work is not up to standard, but I can’t see how to move forward. Can you offer some advice?
Possibly your skills aren’t quite there yet. You may just need to work on your drawing and characters more and more, and keep going. It can take time, but your folio does need to assure a potential publisher that you’ll be able to complete the illustrations for a whole book. So your folio should demonstrate that: you can draw the same characters in different positions; you can draw different backgrounds and settings; you can convey different emotions and atmosphere; you’re confident with your chosen medium/media; and that you can use your drawings to tell a story – where you’ve already chosen an existing story or made one up. Fiddling around and making your own booklets, comic strips and book dummies is also a great way to get a feel for how to tell a story – you can put the resulting artwork in your folio, and, ideally, impress publishers enough to take you on.
I am doing a university project on illustrators and books. Here is my essay. Can you read it over and tell me if it’s good? Where should I change it?
Hmmm… if you want to approach a stranger to help with your project, please don’t ask them to read the whole thing over. It’s not their responsibility to correct your grammar and structure and to check your sources. Instead, work out what you want to know from them, and ask questions specific to this. Many people can make time to answer a few questions, and then – with their permission – you can quote them. Oh, and then you should thank them for their time, which leads to:
Recently – ok within the last year or so – an author helped me with my university project/folio/picture book idea. And I never got back to them afterwards to say ‘thank you’ or let them know how it went. Should I do it now?
What a terrific idea! Better late than never. You won’t believe the difference it will make to the way they think of you, how much help they may offer in future, and how they may feel that day. Treating other people in the industry like real humans is key. To help you on your way, the wolf has composed a ‘cut and paste’ thank you email below:
Dear (insert name),
Thank you so much for the help you gave me with my (project/manuscript/folio). It has really helped me move forward and I appreciate the time you took to give me feedback. I do hope your own work is going well, and wish you the best for future projects.
I think my illustration portfolio is ready! Who should I send it to?
Firstly, do you have an online folio? You can send samples or pdfs to publishers, but they should also be able to go online and check out your work. A blog section of a folio is great too – so you can put up new pieces, work in progress, sketches etc. that may not be complete enough for your folio (it’s important you only put your very best pieces in your folio). Even sketches can get you work. Omnibus Books found a sketch of a house I’d squirrelled away somewhere on my blog, and that got me my first illustration gig: the cover of 88 Lime Street by Denise Kirby. The sketch came up in Google’s search results.
Also, if you’re an SCBWI member, you can set up your free portfolio in the Illustrator Gallery, and enter your work in the illustration awards. SCBWI also have ‘Illustrator Showcases’ and Portfolio Awards, in Australia and internationally. They’re a great way of getting your work out there.
Most publishers are open to receiving illustration folios. First, research the publishing houses to work out where your work may best fit – just look at the publisher details on your favourite books, ideally those published in your own country. Look up the publisher on the web and find out who to send the folio to. Follow up a few weeks later with a nice printed postcard featuring a piece of your best work and your details. Publishers will contact you if they want to see more work, though maybe not for a few weeks/months. If you haven’t heard for a year or so from a publisher though, it’s always good to send a new, updated folio along with a short, friendly note…
Dear Mrs Wolfhog,
We are regarding your online website portfolium and see many wonderful things of great talent! We are pleased to offer the opportunity to develop characters for this HORRIBLY CRAP APP in developing that is the ANTITHESIS OF EVERYTHING you believe in. Also happily to advertise in our universally admired Best of the Best of the Best Illustration Guide pamphlet for a bargain price starter rate of $5000 per annum.
I don’t think there’s any need to answer this one (searches for better spam filter).
**** Deathly Question – the passion killer ****
I have a wonderful idea for a picture book. I haven’t written anything yet but I know it will be great as long as no-one steals my idea. It’s about an amazing thing that really happened to me and I think it would make a perfect story that’s suitable for children (especially as I don’t have time to write a longer book for adults). Also I think there’s a strong moral message in there that children will learn from. I know publishers will love this story as it’s unique. Can you illustrate it? I will give you a 20% share of the royalties. Also, can you give me a list of publishers I can contact? And do you know any other children’s book writers I should be looking at so I can see how to write the book? And how many words and pages should it be do you think?
Snigger. Happily no-one has ever written the wolf an email with ALL THOSE HORRIBLE QUESTIONS in. But every one in there has been asked, and as they’re all horrible to me, I thought I’d deal with them in one knuckle-rapping go:
Stealing ideas: ideas are plentiful and only about 1% of the book-making task ahead, so publishers and editors are more concerned about finding authors who can turn their ideas into a viable book. Also, copyright law protects your work — without any official registration or notice.
A true story that happened to you: People who know you may like your story because it’s a shared experience. By why would anyone else like it? And, if someone asked you to alter the story to make it more entertaining could you do it? Is this your only story – and if so, aren’t you just writing the story to please yourself, and not child readers? If you do want to write stories for children – hopefully lots of stories – then maybe this initial idea is just one you need to write, just to get it out of your system. But accept that it may not be right for publication.
Writing for children is easier: Children’s books are often SHORTER, but that’s not the same as easier. Good writing is difficult and children deserve the best. Writing picture books is extra tricky as they need to be concise and elegantly written, the author needs to think visually, and the market is very competitive.
Moral messages: You’ve come to the wrong person. The Wolf rips up preachy books, then chomps down on the shredded pages. Good children’s stories do not preach. They might explore serious themes, but that’s different to preaching.
Can you illustrate my unresolved story? For future royalties?: Given there’s no proof your book will sell, you’re asking me to draw for free. Grrrrrrrrr….
I don’t know anything about the market. Can you provide me with details of everything? As you’ve emailed me then I’m guessing you have access to the internet. The wolf will get you started. Click here.
Do you prefer to write and illustrate your own books, or to illustrate books written by someone else?
I really like doing both. I only illustrate manuscripts that resonate with me though – it would be hard to illustrate a book I don’t enjoy. Illustrating someone else’s text is great because I can focus on having fun with and bringing out the story without having to worry about whether the text is working. Also, I’m being guided by the publisher, editor and author (though how much contact I have with the author varies depending on the project). When I illustrate my own books, I have more control and can develop my own vision, but the flip-side of that is the project can be overwhelming, and I keep fiddling with my own text…
I have written a picture book. Do I need to find an illustrator to get my own story published?
No. Unless you’re an illustrator yourself, the publisher will want to match you with a professional illustrator of their choice. Even if you ARE an illustrator, the publisher may want to choose another illustrator. This happened with Mike Brownlow’s hugely successful Ten Little Pirates.
And if you’re new, editors will usually prefer to pair you up with one of their own, established illustrators. The publisher may ask for your suggestions or give you an option to choose from a small selection of illustrators, but it’s common for them to proceed without any input from the author.
That’s all for now!