Oh Susanna – How Do You Handle Illustrator Notes In Picture Book Manuscripts?

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

And Happy Birthday to my wonderful dad!!!  I have been exceptionally lucky in the parent department! 🙂  I’m a writer, I know.  I’m supposed to be good at words.  But for some things, there just aren’t good enough words, or I’m not good enough with them, so here’s a picture.  They say that’s worth 1000 🙂

in case you were wondering,
that beauty in the saggy diaper is yours truly, age 15 months 🙂

And now that you’ve had your comic relief for the day 🙂 let’s get on with Oh Susanna, shall we?

Today’s question comes to us from Pam who asks:  I was wondering how many illustrator’s notes you use in your writing.  For example, inApril Fool, Phyllis! did you give any since most of the story could be understood with your words alone?  And, in Not Yet, Rose, did you decide that Rose was a mouse, or was that decided by Nicole Rutten?  I’m utterly confused about illustrator’s notes.  I keep hearing that editors don’t like them unless they’re absolutely necessary, but then I also keep hearing that nowadays editors really want half the story to be told through pictures and half through words, in which case illustrator notes are essential.  Can you help me navigate this dilemma?  Would you be willing to share a portion of a MS in which you designated an illustrator’s note?

We had a similar question back in March of 2012, so I refer you to THIS POST for some information on the subject.

But your question is slightly different… so I will add a little more detail in another direction in case that might be helpful.  (And as always, I hope you alert readers out there will chime in with your two cents – it is always such a contribution!)

In response to your overall question about “how many illustrator’s notes I use” my answer is hardly any.  I try to let the story and the writing speak for themselves as much as possible.

But of course it is not always possible to convey your whole intent, especially for something that’s meant as a secret twist, or a surprise, or an added element of humor, or various other things.  Sometimes a few words to the wise are necessary.

My personal feeling is that illustrator notes break up the flow of your writing when an editor is reading. I know they are trained to kind of skim over them and not get distracted, but I still try to avoid them when I can.

For example, in the case of both April Fool, Phyllis! and Not Yet, Rose, I put the illustration suggestions, such as they were, in the cover letter.    If you recall the story line of April Fool, Phyllis!, you will remember that Phyllis is able to lead her little cousins back to safety by following the sap line.  I didn’t want to give away the ending by calling attention to the sap line too early in the story, but it couldn’t come completely out of nowhere either.  I also wanted the weather to sneak up on the story characters, but I wanted the reader to be able to see it coming.  So I included a note in the cover letter that said that the sap line should be visible in the illustration at various points (so that a reader going back to check Phyllis’s clever solution would see the sap line had been there all along) and that there should be indicators of the coming blizzard in the illustrations – a darkening sky… a few snowflakes… a bit more snow etc. so that the reader could see it coming even while the characters were so caught up in their treasure hunt that they didn’t notice.

For Not Yet, Rose, I did a similar thing.  I included a note in the cover letter pointing out that, although I’d written the story with a human girl in mind, there was no reason why the characters couldn’t be animals, which might be helpful in adding a comforting layer of distance in a story whose emotional arc cut close to the concerns and confusion that many children feel when a sibling arrives – concerns and confusion that are hard for a child to own.  The editor agreed this could work nicely, which is how Rose and her family came to be hamsters (I will not tell Nicole you thought her hamsters were mice 🙂 tee-hee :))

In both cases, those were rather global things that were better mentioned/described in the cover letter.

But sometimes you can’t escape it 🙂 you have to put some art notes in.  My suggestion is to format them correctly and keep them to a minimum.  You are correct that neither editors nor illustrators want too much interference.  They prefer not to have the art dictated to them by the author.  But sometimes it really is necessary to get your point across and/or crucial to the reader’s comprehension of the story.

I’m sure people have been taught differently, and I expect we will get some alternative methods in the comments, but I have been taught that art notes should be bracketed in square brackets, begun with ART in all caps and followed by your notes, single spaced, in small font and kept to the right-hand side as much as possible.  I will try to put an example in here, but I know blogger isn’t going to let me format it right so I won’t be able to do more than one line of art note.

(From Can’t Sleep Without Sheep):

The cows were a complete disaster!  [ART: the cow completely smashes the fence]

Can you get the general idea?  It’s not perfect… if you had more description of your art, it would drop down a line or more, so you would single space and tab over to keep it all on the right-hand side, as easy as possible for the editor to skim over for the time being… but hopefully you can kind of see how you would do it.

I guess as a general rule I’d say if it’s something broad (like the characters could work equally well as humans or animals) you can put it in your cover letter, or in an art note at the start of your manuscript.  If it’s something quite specific to a point in the story, a particular line of text, that would call for an art note.

I understand your concern about editors wanting “half through the pictures and half through the words.”  As authors who don’t draw, this is hard for us!  How will we get across what we’re imagining in our heads?  How will we be sure the editor “gets” our stories?

But remember this:  the pictures are the illustrators’ job.  They are fantastic at what they do – excellent, gifted individuals who see things differently than we do and bring a whole other dimension to our stories.  We don’t need to tell them how to do their jobs – they know 🙂  We only need to be sure that the story concept is clear – to the editor and to the illustrator.  The words are our job, the art is theirs.  So write the best story you can write.  Add a little note in your cover letter if there’s something that can be well explained there.  Put a judicious art note or two in your manuscript if necessary.  And then be prepared to be surprised and delighted by what your illustrator brings to your story 🙂

I hope this helps answer your questions, Pam.  If not, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments and all our helpful readers and I will do our best to make it more understandable.

Helpful Readers, I invite you to add anything from your experience that might be of use to Pam, whether your opinion/experience corroborates mine or yours is different and will add another avenue of help.

Have a terrific Monday, everyone! 🙂

47 thoughts on “Oh Susanna – How Do You Handle Illustrator Notes In Picture Book Manuscripts?

  1. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    I'd like to post one thousand wonderful words about how adorable 15 month old Susanna is!
    I'm so happy Disqus will now let me add my thoughts!

  2. Teresa Robeson says:

    Happy birthday to your wonderful dad who raised a wonderful daughter!!

    Loved this post as I have a story that, due to the joke that happens behind the MC's back, needs to have some illustrator/art notes and I had been wondering how to broach that.

    Happy Earth Day to you too, Susanna!

  3. Clarbojahn says:

    I added a comment below but I don't think it's going to publish. It had a link in it from Picture Book Den and I see I misspelled my name. I just wanted to thank Susanna for her expert suggestions. 🙂

  4. pennyklostermann says:

    Thanks, Susanna for a very clear answer, and for posting an example. It is interesting that you and Iza mentioned putting ART notes in the cover letter. I hadn't thought about t.at I did just read the post at The Picture Book Den that addressed this, too. One of the contributors said the same thing as you and Iza about interrupting the flow when an editor is reading. Lots of information to store away for reference! Thanks!

    And loved seeing the picture of you with your dad!

  5. Joanna Marple says:

    Dang that photo is cute!

    Agree 100% with this and what Iza says about, sometimes It's time to revise my story if there are too many illo notes needed.

    On an unrelated note, For about the last two weeks I have no longer been receiving emails of your comments. Is this intentional (completely fine if it is!)?

  6. Margaret Greanias says:

    Happy Birthday to your dad! I have been having a lot of trouble with art notes — and recently got a helpful rejection from an agent who advised against art notes in the manuscript. The question I have is: While I like the idea of including art notes in the cover letter, I've also read that agents or other readers often skim the cover letter. What do you advise in this case??

  7. Vivian Kirkfield says:

    LOVE the photo, Susanna! Thanks so much for sharing it. 🙂
    Pam asked a really great question…one that I had also thought about. Your answer is a great help…the suggestion to put something in the cover letter makes a lot of sense…and obviously, it worked well for you. 🙂

  8. Pam says:

    Wow–so clear now! Thanks so much, Susanna and everyone else for your comments. I think I understand how/when to use art notes now! Yippee! Oh, and for NOT YET, ROSE, hopefully Nicole will never see this post! But, it reflects more on my complete ignorance of hamsters as opposed to her rendition of them in your book 🙂

  9. Lisa says:

    Hi! As an illustrator, when I am given a manuscript to illustrate by a regular publisher I have never been given art notes. The only time that I have been given notes is if it is for an educational publisher and then they give very detailed, exacting notes that have to be followed to the letter! I think authors need to trust illustrators to figure things out in their own creative way. That's what they do. Also, when I have been “just” the author, I don't provide notes either.

  10. Genevieve says:

    Very helpful, Susanna. I never use art notes, simply because I don't know how. This post makes it much clearer. Thanks.

  11. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks for chiming in, Angela! I hadn't thought about screenwriting/playwriting, but I think you're right about the parallels!

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    Angela Brown

    Interesting, I think this translates into a lot of areas where someone else has to translate/interpret things out. I've read about the same thing with writing screen plays. Keep notes to a minimal and let the directors/actors/actresses translate the words to action. I can see that same applying with editors and illustrators. Keep it to a bare minimum. 7:55 a.m., Monday April 22

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  12. Patricia Tilton says:

    Such a sweet picture of you with your dad — sagging diaper and all.

    Liked your advice. Think it depends on the situation. I would generally not include art comments, but if it was really necessary I would.

    And, I've listened to Steven Malk from Writer's House said in a critique session to use them if necessary. Author/illustrator Peter Reynolds likes them and has no problem with them because he likes to know what the author is thinking.

  13. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks for you always helpful help, Iza! 🙂 And I'm surprised you have to think about art notes – I would have thought you'd just submit your art with your story!

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    Iza Trapani (Guest):

    I totally agree that illustration notes should be avoided or kept to a minimum- and preferably put in the cover letter. I sometimes add them to the beginning or end of the manuscript- so the reading flow won't be interrupted. And it is always something specific that is not clear upon reading , but would be obvious in the illustrations. If a story is well written, pictures will pop to mind for the reader. I find in my own stories, if I feel a need to add too many illustrations notes, then it's time to rework the story. 7:31 a.m., Monday April 22

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  14. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Yay! Cathy! You're back! I'm so happy 🙂 You just never know what disqus is going to do next 🙂

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    Cathy Ballou Mealey

    I'd like to post one thousand wonderful words about how adorable 15 month old Susanna is! I'm so happy Disqus will now let me add my thoughts!
    9:37 a.m., Monday April 22

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  15. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Oh, good! Then I'm glad Pam asked! 🙂

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    Sue Heavenrich (Guest):

    thanks! I was wondering the exact same thing about art directions (or thoughts/suggestions…) 10:36 a.m., Monday April 22

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  16. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I'm glad you liked it, Beth, but I would have thought you already knew all about this! 🙂 Probably more than me since you're an artist!

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    Elizabeth Rose Stanton

    Such a helpful post, Susanna. Thank you!
    10:50 a.m., Monday April 22

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  17. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I'll pass along your bday wishes – thanks Teresa 🙂 – and I'm glad if you found the post helpful… and timely 🙂

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    Teresa Robeson

    Happy birthday to your wonderful dad who raised a wonderful daughter!! Loved this post as I have a story that, due to the joke that happens behind the MC's back, needs to have some illustrator/art notes and I had been wondering how to broach that. Happy Earth Day to you too, Susanna!
    10:54 a.m., Monday April 22

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  18. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thank you so much, Pat. That was very helpful. I'm interested to hear about Peter, as I think others will be as well. And I'm glad you think saggy sue with her dad is sweet 🙂

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    Patricia Tilton (Guest):

    Such a sweet picture of you with your dad — sagging diaper and all. Liked your advice. Think it depends on the situation. I would generally not include art comments, but if it was really necessary I would. And, I've listened to Steven Malk from Writer's House said in a critique session to use them if necessary. Author/illustrator Peter Reynolds likes them and has no problem with them because he likes to know what the author is thinking. 10:48 p.m., Monday April 22

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  19. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    In that case, Margaret, I'd advise a short art note at either the beginning or the end of the manuscript itself, and I'd choose beginning or end based on how critical the note was to the first reading. If that makes sense…. 🙂

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    Margaret Greanias

    Happy Birthday to your dad! I have been having a lot of trouble with art notes — and recently got a helpful rejection from an agent who advised against art notes in the manuscript. The question I have is: While I like the idea of including art notes in the cover letter, I've also read that agents or other readers often skim the cover letter. What do you advise in this case?? 1:41 p.m., Monday April 22

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  20. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Your email address is missing from the reply line, so I can't copy it in! I don't know why. Some people's show up, and other's don't. I was assuming if it didn't show up you had checked something to allow you to see all replies… but I guess not. Disqus confounds me. Glad you like the photo and agree with Iza 🙂

  21. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I think Iza also made a good point in the comments, Romelle, about how if we feel like we need a lot of notes it may be because our writing needs a little more work 🙂 Sad but true 🙂 Thanks for the bday wishes – I'll pass them along – and glad you liked the picture 🙂

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    Romelle Broas (Guest):

    Excellent post, Susanna! I always write with pictures in my head so it helps me to write PB with few words. I know Illustrators will have no problem interpreting the text their own way, but I find myself still putting illo notes in to help my critique group understand it. Then I second guess the potential slush readers and end up leaving the notes in. It takes a lot of restraint by the author to let go of control. Good point about the illo notes interrupting the flow of the reading. Happy Birthday to your dad. That is a precious picture!
    12:28 p.m., Monday April 22

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  22. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I'm so glad if it was helpful, Rosi! 🙂 And, as I said, they should still be brief, and only if necessary, and the comments that work best in a cover letter are the broader more global one like the examples I gave. Sometimes you do need a specific note in the text. But it's great when you can find a way around that.

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    Rosi (Guest):

    It never occured to me to put the art notes in the cover letter. This is a really useful post. Thanks. 12:45 p.m., Monday April 22

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  23. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks so much, Joy! I'm so glad if you find it helpful 🙂

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    Joy Corcoran

    Great post! and thanks for providing a link to the earlier post. Your blog is so informative. 2:50 p.m., Monday April 22

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  24. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Glad you like it, Catherine 🙂 And thanks for the bday wishes for my dad 🙂

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    Catherine Margaret Johnson

    Happy birthday to your dad, Susanna! Love that photo. Great advice too! 3:11 p.m., Monday April 22

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  25. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Glad you like the picture and found the post helpful, Vivian. I think something we all struggle with is that temptation to explain everything – to be sure all our readers will see everything exactly the way we envisioned it. It's hard to give up control 🙂 and we have to restrain ourselves from putting in 14 pages of explanatory art notes 🙂

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    Vivian Kirkfield

    LOVE the photo, Susanna! Thanks so much for sharing it. 🙂
    Pam asked a really great question…one that I had also thought about. Your answer is a great help…the suggestion to put something in the cover letter makes a lot of sense…and obviously, it worked well for you. 🙂 3:17 p.m., Monday April 22

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  26. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    You're so funny, Pam 🙂 As a matter of fact, many people mistake the hamsters for mice. I get a lot of entertainment out of it on school visits 🙂 The giveaway is the tail – mice have them, hamsters don't. I'm so glad you found the post helpful! And I'm glad you asked the question because I think other people have found it helpful too, so you have helped them!

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    Pam (Guest):

    Wow–so clear now! Thanks so much, Susanna and everyone else for your comments. I think I understand how/when to use art notes now! Yippee! Oh, and for NOT YET, ROSE, hopefully Nicole will never see this post! But, it reflects more on my complete ignorance of hamsters as opposed to her rendition of them in your book 🙂 3:20 p.m., Monday April 22

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  27. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks so much for sharing, Lisa. That is an important distinction. Think how much research Steven had to do for the Smithsonian books to get everything to look just right. Excellent point about non-fiction and educational matter.

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    Lisa (Guest):

    Hi! As an illustrator, when I am given a manuscript to illustrate by a regular publisher I have never been given art notes. The only time that I have been given notes is if it is for an educational publisher and then they give very detailed, exacting notes that have to be followed to the letter! I think authors need to trust illustrators to figure things out in their own creative way. That's what they do. Also, when I have been “just” the author, I don't provide notes either. 3:30 p.m., Monday April 22

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  28. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Aw, thanks, Coleen! 🙂

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    coleen patrick

    I love that pic of you and your dad, Susanna! So sweet. 🙂 Happy birthday to your dad! 5:24 p.m., Monday April 22

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  29. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I've been up to my ears lately and haven't read the Picture Book Den post – I'll have to find it. Glad you found the post helpful… and liked the picture 🙂

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  30. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    You're welcome, Clar, and I'm sorry if you're having trouble posting. Penny mentioned that post from Picture Book Den too, which I haven't read yet and would like to.

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  31. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    I enjoyed this post. I avoid them at all costs. As a result, a recent rejection made me consider an improvement to my query/cover letter. I do have a nearly wordless story that I haven't considered pitching for fear of the illo notes. I knew, if I waited a while there would be lots more to read in the comments. I hope your dad had a wonderful birthday. Cute pix.

  32. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks for the bday wishes for my dad 🙂 And when illo notes are called for, they are important. I was going to say if you haven't had a chance to look at Linda Ashman's post on No Dogs Allowed you should read it, but when I went to get the link it said page not found…. she must have taken it down. Too bad – it was so informative!

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  33. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    You know. I might have that on my desktop somewhere. Linda is a master of such books and rhyme. I attended a writer's retreat where she was the PB faculty.

  34. Linda Ashman says:

    Hi, Susanna! Someone just left me a note about this post on my website. I didn't realize there was a problem with the No Dogs Allowed manuscript (actually, it was a bad link — the ms was still there). I'm sorry about that, and am really glad I saw this!

    Your blog is great! And I really like Can't Sleep without Sheep. In fact, my 15 year old has been having trouble sleeping — maybe I should share it with him . . .

    Good to meet you!
    Linda

  35. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Hi Linda! I'm honored to have you stop by my blog! And I apologize for the bad link… if you have a second to send me the correct one I'll fix it. I know it used to work, but something obviously went wrong somewhere. I LOVE No Dogs Allowed! Thanks again for your visit – good luck getting that 15 year old to sleep… mine only want to sleep when it's time for school 🙂

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