Pitch Pick # 6 and Oh, Susanna – How Does A PB author Know How Much "Space" To Leave The Illustrator?

Oh, Happy Monday!

It’s March!  So even if we’re at the in-like-a-lion stage, spring is beginning to feel like a possibility 🙂  Here’s a little something to get you thinking spring 🙂

google images

Today, fun of fun, we have the February Pitch Pick to determine which of our talented writers will get to have her pitch sent to editor Erin Molta for critique!

A little refresher:

#1  Dede

Working Title: Summer of ’71
Age/Genre: MG
The Pitch:  When eleven-year old Fiona peered through the broken slat of the caretaker’s shed at the back corner of the West End Cemetery, the last thing she expected to see was a girl about her own age, asleep on the dirt floor. Thus begins an unlikely friendship that carries them through a summer of bullies, a best friend’s betrayal, and a life-changing tragedy. 

#2  Sarah

Working Title: Starstruck
Age/Genre: YA
Pitch: Seventeen year old Katie literally stumbles into Matt’s life one icy January morning. Within two months they’re friends, and in three, they’re dating. But there’s a snag. Matt is a movie star and teenage heart-throb. Katie’s living the dream that every other girl her age has, but the dazzle of having a famous boyfriend only lasts so long. How will Katie cope when the line between dream and nightmare becomes blurred? 

#3  Sharron

Working Title: Sorrysorrysorry
Age/Genre: Early PB (ages 2-5)
The Pitch:  Three frolicking baby giraffes try to find a place to play on a hot and crowded savannah. They find it isn’t an easy task. They run into a troop of baboons, a dazzle of zebras, and a pride of lions. At last, they turn to the river, only to be confronted by hippopotami. Our giraffes find fun and friendship at the end of a long a grueling day.

#4  Jennifer R

Working Title:  The Birthday Bash
Age/Genre: PB (ages 6-8)
The Pitch:  It’s Sylvia’s birthday tomorrow and Stan and Louie have a big surprise party planned. With hilarity and hi-jinks the two raccoons search for Sylvia’s favorite foods in the forest, garages and backyard patios. Will they find what they’re looking for or will the birthday party be a bust?

#5  Jennifer Y

Working Title:  Planet Vacation
Age/Genre: Picture Book (ages 4-8)
The Pitch:  Rose takes a vacation to visit the planets.  Will she get a chance to rollerblade on the rings of Saturn and scuba dive for starfish on Jupiter or will her trip be nothing like she dreamed?
A tough choice as always, made tougher by the fact that February, although a short month, managed to have 5 Wednesdays!
Please cast your vote for the best pitch in the poll below by Wednesday March 7 at 11:59 PM EST.  That way I can announce the winner on Friday after Perfect Picture Books 🙂

<a href=”http://polldaddy.com/poll/5999890/”>Pitch Pick #6</a>
Moving right along, we also have an Oh, Susanna question today.
Darshana asks,
I am a pre-published PB author still learning her craft.
I keep hearing to leave enough “space” for the illustrator to do their job.
In other words, don’t overwrite.
How do you make that call when you are writing your MS.

For example:

“Jay .. ” sighed Mr. Martin. “You could have entered the Academy. You’ll have to wait until next year to try out again.”

Jay’s head dropped and his feathers dropped.   <<< is this needed in text or do I leave it for the illustrator to show?

Teary-eyed, Jay flew away to the coast.
Another excellent question!
A picture book is supposed to be a marriage of words and art.  The author should tell half the story, and the illustrator should tell the other half.  This means that, unless it is absolutely crucial to the plot for some reason (as in Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse) you do not need to say that the MC is wearing a red coat, or that her hair is blond, or his dad drives a Chevy.  Leave those details to the illustrator’s imagination.
That said, there are some things which are crucial on first reading (for the editor and illustrator to imagine) that can later be cut from the text once they’ve done their job – i.e. once the illustrator has shown it.  An example, from Can’t Sleep Without Sheep, was that in the original ms it said “The hippos waddled forward.  ‘We’re going to need a crane,’ said the sheep.  “This could take a while.'”  Once Mike had drawn the crane, we didn’t need that sentence anymore and were able to go to the funnier, “The hippos waddled forward.  ‘This could take a while,’ said the sheep.”
Another option, to be used sparingly because most editors and illustrators don’t like it, is to include art specs.  This should only be done when something specific HAS to be drawn to make the story work, or when the text is so spare that the reader won’t know what you intend without the art notes.  For example, the text of No Dogs Allowed.  If you scroll down that link on Linda Ashman’s page, you can click on the actual manuscript and see how she did it.
But ultimately, it is your job as author to use the strongest nouns and verbs you can, so that your intent is crystal clear without having to explain.
In your example above, I don’t think you need the part you asked about.  If you go straight from “try again” to “Teary-eyed, Jay flew away…”, you have clearly indicated his sadness with “teary-eyed”and an illustrator is likely to pick up on that and paint his dejection.
But this is where picture books are different from every other genre.  The illustrator might paint something else.  And it might be just as good as what you intended, or even better!
So your job is to tell the story and let the illustrator draw it.
And be forewarned that when your book arrives in proof form, it may not be quite what you expected, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great!
Anyone else who has submitted mss, please chime in with your thoughts.  And illustrators too – what do you like to see?

67 thoughts on “Pitch Pick # 6 and Oh, Susanna – How Does A PB author Know How Much "Space" To Leave The Illustrator?

  1. Ishta Mercurio-Wentworth says:

    I found your example from “Can't Sleep Without Sheep” to be very interesting – I want to ask how you know when you've written just enough for the editor to “get it” and not so much that you turn them off, but I don't think there's really an answer to that question, is there?

    Thanks for sharing this question and your response.

  2. Joanna Marple says:

    This is a great question. i think the more I write, the more I get a feel for this, but I know, one needs to remain flexible and open to editors and illustrators input. I agree with Susanna on Dar's example, “teary-eyed” shows a lot!.

  3. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I think you're right, Joanna. “Feel” always has a lot to do with it. And PBs are a collaboration – much more so than any other book form – so to some degree it is a group effort and you do have to stay open to others' ideas.

  4. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    It's partly about feel, Ishta, which is very hard to explain. But don't worry – the more you write the more you'll get it. When I first started writing PBs my mss routinely came it at 2000 words (that will show you how much extra telling was involved!) and now even my first drafts are rarely over 700-800 tops – big progress for me – and usually are under 600 🙂 But this is an area where I think having critique partners or beta readers can really help you. Have someone who knows nothing about your story read your ms and then ask – what do you feel here? what do you visualize there? If they say what you intended, then you've done your job. If they totally don't get it, you may need to rework – but try to get a couple different people's opinions first – one is not a good research sample 🙂 Also (and I'm sure you've heard this before!) study the masters. Look at Jane Yolen, Kevin Henkes, Mo Willems, etc. and try to see how they do it. I hope that helps a little.

  5. This Kid Reviews Bks says:

    The puppy is SOOOOOOOOO cute!

    The pitches were great! I had a hard time choosing! 😉
    I learned that you don't need to put as many details in your story and that the illustrator can add some details!

  6. Donna Martin says:

    I don't have any published picture books under my belt…yet…but I certainly have learned that LESS is MORE when it comes to which words I use in my stories and I agree that the strongest action words will give illustrators plenty to work with to support the writer's intent.

  7. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I know – I love puppies 🙂 and the pitches were all great – a hard choice!

    It's true – as a PB writer, you're supposed to leave room for the illustrator, which is a hard thing to learn. But the more space you leave them, the more creative they can be, which ultimately takes your story to a whole new level. I especially love books where the illustrations tell a parallel or additional story (like in April Fool, Phyllis where on your first read you might not see the sap line in the background or the changing weather) or where there's a certain thing to look for on every page, like Goldbug in Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

  8. pennyklostermann says:

    Cute puppy? I just want to (((hug))) the little guy.

    Oh, it was hard to vote. I finally went with the one I felt I would take home from the library….if I was allowed ONLY one book. It had me really wanting to hear the story behind the pitch. To me, pitches are very difficult to write. I have that chore this week because I have a goal to submit a MS this week. And with that said…I know there are some handy guidelines out in the Internet universe. I'm hoping for clarity as I study those guidelines. Would You Read It Wednesday has been very helpful…as well as writing reviews for PPBF-even though I sometimes “borrow” (I do give them credit) the synopsis from a book's website or an online book seller, I still learn from seeing how they summed up the plot.

    I love the question this week. As a new writer…I started in the fall of 2010…I can say that I have really improved in this area. I still have a long way to go…but…progress is evident. I agree with others who have commented… that the more you write the clearer this becomes. I have to give a huge amount of credit to my critique group for pointing these things out to me since I am so new to writing. Also, I wish I would've listed the books I have read this year. Susanna, I should've done like you do for your 100 Day Challenge. I keep 30-40 books checked out at all times. Studying these books is so eye opening when it comes to the marriage of text and illustrations.

    Gee…I have rambled too long. Thanks for the great question, Darshana. And, thanks, Susanna for the great answer.

  9. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I loved your response, Penny! Not too long at all! We're here for writerly conversation 🙂 You can always start a list of what you read – it's only the beginning of March 🙂 And I'm glad you enjoyed Darshana's question, and thanks for your input on the answer!

  10. Catherine Johnson says:

    What a cute picture! As for the question, I've often wondered myself that the illustrator could do to know something and then chop it later, otherwise all teh author/illustrators have so much more of headstart on us knowing what they want to do already and not needing the words. Great ?

  11. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    It was a good bunch of pitches, wasn't it? Makes it so hdd to choose…! 🙂

    And I'm so glad if you found the question and answer helpful! Thank you so much for your kind words about my little blog! 🙂

  12. Heather Newman says:

    Excellent advice, Susanna! You are so right about giving the artist room to play. I have 2 middle grade books under my belt (illustrations only) with an independent publisher. One book came to me with minimal directions for the art and the other needed author approval for the cover and character sketches, along with 6 files of reference she wanted me to use. The first book was much more fun to work on because I was able to give my own interpretation and ideas to the author's words. The second book, well, let's just say next time I'll ask how involved the author will be in the project. She was a nice woman who wrote an excellent book, but she wasn't allowing me to take her words and fly with them. It was a good learning experience, that's for sure!

  13. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Wow – the book with all the instructions must have been a challenge and much less fulfilling as an artist, I would think. Thank you so much for sharing your artist's perspective – we need more of that 🙂 As an author who cannot draw and who relies on illustrators to bring my books to life, I really like hearing the view from the other side!

  14. Julie Rowan-Zoch says:

    Great post and in tune with what I am pondering, albeit from the middle: I write and illustrate, sometimes simultaneously. I often wonder if I am not offering enough text, because my pictures say so much (hard to get them to keep quiet!). My question would be, how construct an MS with very few words to my crit group so they might 'see' without interrupting the reading flow. I thought of sending two versions, one w/just text for flow, then another with marked descriptions throughout the MS text. Does that sound conceivable to anyone?

  15. Leigh Covington says:

    How am I supposed to concentrate with those cute pictures that you post? They're darling. Now I want a puppy! 🙂

    As always, I love your “oh-susanna” posts. Helpful as always. One of the best ideas anyone has had. I'm so glad you do this. AND… I voted!

  16. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    This is an interesting question, Julie. Honestly, I'm not sure if there's such a thing as not enough text. Think about books like Good Dog, Carl and Goodnight Gorilla where the whole story is told in pictures with only (maybe) a sentence on the first and last page. Or books like Mine! where the only word in the book is “mine”, or the example linked above – No Dogs Allowed – where the text is VERY minimal. If you are in the fortunate position of being able to write and illustrate, your pictures will say what you need them to, and your critique partners should be able to evaluate your story as a whole. Does that answer your question, or did I miss the point? 🙂

  17. Iza Trapani says:

    Love the pitches! And I love your O Susanna! feature. Such a brilliant idea. You gave an excellent response to today's question. Picture books truly are a marriage of words and images. It is the writer's job to pare the story down to its essence and the illustrator's job to support , clarify and enhance the text with details. And yet it's a fine line. Sure, there are many beautiful wordless picture books that tell a story, but there are even more picture books with text. Some texts may be brief, others lengthy but they both have the added benefit of the sound of words. Using strong verbs and nouns as Susanna said is very important. Paring it down and moving a story forward is key too (leaving room for the illustrator.) There's no need to point out things that can be shown in the illustrations.
    As for adding art specs to the manuscript- in my experience, if I need to add art specs then my text needs more work (it's unclear, not descriptive, perhaps contrived.) Certainly, there are times when something in the text may need to be clarified with a note, but generally, when reading a picture book manuscript, images should pop to mind.

  18. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    That's a good point, Catherine. I don't think there's any doubt that author/illustrators have an edge. Many editors from many houses have admitted they like getting the whole package. Lots of illustrators are encouraged to start writing, and it is generally accepted that an illustrator can learn to write a picture book much more easily than an author can learn to draw… although my agent has encouraged me more than once to give it a try and take classes… which just goes to show author/illustrators must be an easier sell because there's no other reason to encourage a hopeless artist like me to learn to draw 🙂

  19. Natalie says:

    I really have nothing to add–other than, this is something that I have really been wondering about myself. So thank you, Darshana for submitting the question and thank you Susanna for clarifying this for us. 🙂

  20. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I'm SO glad if you found it at all helpful, Natalie! Heather and Iza and I think a couple others also added some great info in the comments, so if you didn't see that part, you won't want to miss it!

  21. Darshana says:

    Thank you Susanna for posting my question! Sorry I was late to the party. Thanks for sharing an example from Can't Sleep Without Sheep. I am starting to understand what is the minimum text needed to describe and move a story forward.

    Does anyone know of any blog posts/books where an author has shown one of their early drafts/PB dummy. I learn best from examples such as what Susanna posted. If I ever get published I would love to do a before/after type spread as an educational tool for new writers. Someday.

    Thank you all for you wonderful replies. It feels like Xmas with all the great advice and links to check out!

  22. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks, Stina! I'm so glad you enjoyed it even if it doesn't pertain to YA 🙂 I do accept YA pitches for Would You Read It if you're ever inclined – although the current next available date is June 13 🙂

  23. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    You're welcome, Darshana! It was a really good question – as you can tell by the response! I learn best by example, too – I am always looking for specific examples of things to help me learn – YA novel plotting in particular 🙂

  24. Ramona says:

    Great post Susanna. It is so useful reading other writers pitches.

    I love your comment: “…it is your job as author to use the strongest nouns and verbs you can, so that your intent is crystal clear without having to explain.”

    This is so true and can be so tricky to achieve, yet satisfying when you do.

  25. Janet Johnson says:

    My vote is in, and also, what great advice about picture books! I love you example about the crane. Thank you for the advice!

  26. Renee LaTulippe says:

    Great advice, and I love the examples and links! I tend to write very spare drafts, so leaving room for the illustrator isn't a problem for me — but making the draft comprehensible for an editor is! I'm really hesitant to put illustrator notes, but after reading this, a note or two may be in order. I read an interview with Juliet Clare Bell (Don't Panic, Annika) recently in which she said she included illustration notes in her first submission to the editor, but was asked to take them out before sending to the illustrator. Ack – it seems everyone wants something slightly different! Anyway, thanks for the points to ponder…

  27. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    What I'm talking about when I mention an art note would be something along the lines of this: if I Want My Hat Back had been written by an author (instead of an author/illustrator who knew what he wanted to draw) the author would have had to include a note to explain what was shown on the second to last page where he says only, “I love my hat.” It would not have been immediately obvious that he intended it to look as though the bear had eaten the rabbit. Does that make sense? I think it's usually a case where unstated humor is funny because it's unstated and shown in the picture only. Or a smilier situation where the emotion is heightened by NOT saying it – only showing it. Otherwise, probably 9.8 times out of 10 we're just interfering. But you're right – different editors and illustrators like different things. I've read blog interviews with editors who say they like art specs. But I don't think that's the norm.

  28. Peggy Eddleman says:

    Those pitches were AWESOME! I don't write PB, but it has always fascinated me. And reading your answer about the marriage between words and art was incredible!

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