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! 🙂