By Brooke Boynton-Hughes
You sold your picture book manuscript! Huzzah! And now it will become a BOOK! With illustrations! But, will the illustrator capture your vision? Will they draw your characters just as you hoped they would? And what's taking so long, anyway?!
My author/illustrator debut, BRAVE MOLLY (Chronicle), came out earlier this year, and while it is the first book that I've authored, it's the 9th book (out of 10) that I've illustrated. I've heard from author friends that they can sometimes feel a bit in the dark about what exactly is going on with their manuscript once it has been picked up by an editor.
While I can't speak to what exactly is happening on the publisher's end, I'm hoping I can shed a little light on what's happening on the illustrator side of things while you're waiting for months, or years, for your manuscript to become a real-life illustrated book.
While I'm sure my process shares similarities with other illustrators, every illustrator has their own way of working. Please take what follows with a grain of salt.
Step 1: To Illustrate, or Not to Illustrate!
My agent sends me an email with the good news that an editor has a manuscript that they'd like me to illustrate. Occasionally an editor or art director will ask an illustrator to do a sample illustration before officially offering the illustrator the job, sort of like an actor auditioning for a part.
If I'm excited enough about the story to want to spend at least a year of my life with it, then I usually say, "Yes!" Sometimes an illustrator just doesn't connect with a story, although, there are a lot of reasons why an illustrator might pass on a manuscript: scheduling conflicts, already juggling too many projects, stuff going in their personal life, etc. etc.
Step 2: Hello, Publishing Folks!
Before starting a book, I talk with the editor and/or art director about the vision for the book. Sometimes this conversation is short and sweet and sometimes it’s more involved and covers things like color palette, age and gender of characters, or any other number of things that might be relevant to the story. At the very least, technicalities like trim size and page count are discussed at this stage.
Step 3: The Layout!
I start each book by creating thumbnail layouts. Thumbnail layouts are small, rough sketches of every spread in the book. Creating tiny, rough layouts helps get me thinking about what I want to convey without getting too caught up with the details.
At this stage, I'm thinking about how the illustrations can add to the story without just restating visually what the text says with words. I'm also thinking about how the visual pacing of the story works with the pacing of the plot and trying to decide which moments of the story should be double page spreads, single spreads, or vignettes.
Sometimes an editor has already paginated the text, and sometimes I work out the pagination. It depends on the editor and on the story.
Step 4: More Layouts!
Once I have a rough thumbnail layout that I like, I re-draw it more clearly and at a larger size. The new, cleaner sketches give a good sense of the composition of each spread and of the visual storytelling that's taking place throughout the book.
Step 5: Character sketches!
It usually takes a while to figure out what a character looks like, which for me starts by drawing lots of heads. I have pages and pages of drawings of just heads (I'm pretty sure this isn't normal…? But it works for me).
None of the picture book manuscripts I've illustrated contained any indication of what the characters looked like (other than age), which left lots of room for me to play and explore. Once I feel I have the characters figured out, I'll re-draw them side by side and do a digital color study in Photoshop. (In reality, I'm often going back and forth between working on the character sketches and the layout).
Step 6: Waiting!
This is when I email everything to the art director and wait. Sometimes the wait can be a week or two, and sometimes it can be a few months. The process of illustrating a picture book is collaborative and each party needs time to do their part of the job. This is usually when I catch up on personal projects, or if I'm juggling more than one book at a time, I'll switch over to the other project.
Step 7: Notes!
The editor and/or art director will send notes on the layout and character sketches. I make revisions based on their feedback and email them the new version. Rinse and repeat.
Step 8: Full-size Drawings! (My favorite step!)
Once the editor and art director have approved the layout and the character design, I start on full-size drawings. I work directly on my final watercolor paper. (Some illustrators do their full-size sketches on tracing paper and then transfer the drawing to their final support. Also, I want to mention again that every illustrator’s process is different. This is just how I do things.)
Step 9: More waiting!
I scan the finished drawings, email them to the art director, and wait for feedback. I think this is usually when the editor or art director will send the images to the author for review (but don't quote me on that).
Step 10: More Notes! More revisions!
Since I’ve worked out most of the bigger visual problems in the layout stage, there usually aren't too many revisions at this stage. But sometimes, for one reason or another, things need to be adjusted and there might be a lot of back and forth: revise something, re-send it to the art director, wait for notes, revise it again, etc.
Step 11: Stuff happens!
Twice while in the midst of illustrating picture books (and both times with the same, very patient publisher) I had to have surgery rather unexpectedly, which meant that the books had to be pushed back a few months. If your book is pushed back a list, it might be that the illustrator has to deal with life stuff. (Or it might just be because your illustrator is slow. Sometimes we can be slow.)
Step 12: Final Art!
Once I've received approval on the full size pencil drawings, I ink all of the line work and then paint all of the images one by one. Instead of painting the illustrations in order from beginning to end, I jump around so that if the way I paint changes slightly as I go, the progression won't be noticeable. I also jump around so that I can tackle the more complicated images at the beginning when I'm feeling fresh and save the more straightforward images for the end when I'm often battling drawing-hand fatigue.
Step 13: Fingers Crossed!
I scan the final images, email them off, and hope that I get the go-ahead to send the original art via snail mail. Sometimes changes need to be made, and since I work with traditional media (instead of working digitally), this sometimes means that I have to re-do an illustration completely. Sometimes I'll repaint just a small section of an image and ask the art director to Photoshop it into the rest of the illustration.
Step 14: Proofs!
Once the publisher has my finished art, they make scans of the images and the art director lays in all of the text and works their art director magic. Then the publisher has proofs made which they send to the illustrator for approval (I think they usually send proofs to the author, too). Sometimes colors need to be adjusted, or errors are caught and fixed.
Step 15: We made a book! Together!
Once everyone approves the proofs, the book is off to the printer! Hooray!
I imagine that it would be incredibly nerve-wracking to hand your manuscript over to an illustrator who may not envision things the same way you do. But, just as an author wouldn't want someone standing over their shoulder telling them which words to use where, an illustrator wouldn't want someone telling them exactly how something should look. An illustrator's job is not to re-create exactly what the author has envisioned, but rather, to bring their own, unique vision and voice to a story.
So be patient and trust that the illustrator of your picture book loves your manuscript just as much as you do and is doing everything they can to help bring your story to life. And together we’ll make a beautiful book!
We are a group of writers and illustrators who have debut books (actual debuts , debuts as author-illustrators, or debuts with medium/large publishers) forthcoming in 2019. Thank you for joining us on our exciting journey!