by James Serafino
Writing a story is incredibly difficult. Illustrating a story is incredibly difficult. Why not do both and have twice the fun!?
When you are both the author and illustrator of your story you get all of the credit, but you also get all of the work and that work is complicated. Things will get messy; a whole story can fall apart right before your eyes and it can only be your fault. Here are some of my thoughts on trying, and mostly failing to, write and illustrate picture books.
The big problem when you are dealing with both halves of a story is it can be easy for the writer to interfere with the artist and the artist to want to ignore the writer. The only thing to do is separate these two quarreling brats for as long as possible. It won’t be easy and you won’t always be successful and I wish I had a third, positive thing to add, but I don’t. This will be a nightmare, you have chosen poorly.
However a story begins, I usually start with a drawing of a character or image in mind, it will have to be written out into the real world at some point. When you first begin to write don’t worry about grammar or sentences or story arc or character development. Just write down everything that this story is and wants to be and don’t stop writing until you know what this story of yours is actually about.
Then repeat the process for the art. What do the characters look like, what medium will be used? Draw and paint and experiment and brainstorm until you discover what the art can bring to and say about this story of yours. I first came to children’s books through picture making, so I focus on this aspect the most. I like to try to find a way for the art to impact the story somehow and when I find that path I know it is time to write a first draft.
Once you start a draft don’t give up on it until it's done, always try to get to the end of the story because figuring out the end will influence the beginning and each draft will be come stronger one after another. Now that you have a nice story written with a beginning, middle and end-- this may take weeks, months or years--take time to play with the art in context of your now written story. Are there parts of the story that could be better as art than words? What if that character was a coconut instead? The rule of thumb you’ll hear is show, don’t tell, and that is a good rule, but can be hard to follow because if you are like me, you like fun and silly words and listing as many of them as you can. Art can be a great storytelling tool, but sadly words may have to pay the price sometimes
It is so easy to get half way through a dummy when the illustrator half will have some great flash of inspiration that requires a total rewrite of the text by the writer and you are left with nothing but a shell of a book and not much else, seemingly back at square one.
My trick, for the first dummy draft, is to pretend that your script was written by someone else and came from your editor. You can’t change it and it is your job to illustrate the story as best you can. By forcing your way to the end, like in writing, you discover the parts that don’t work and know where to focus your editing. What text is better replaced by an image, what words are essential? Repeat this process as needed or until insanity takes you.
Now is the fun/scary part. You gotta stop separating them and let the artist and writer fight it out like the two great titans they are; because the two halves working together is what makes author/illustrated stories so unique and powerful. You can use art and images to tell some of the story leaving room for text to explore deeper into your character and the story’s meaning. There is no need to waste your precious word count on explaining a character's mood when you are in charge of that character’s expression in the art. You can set up a joke with one half and deliver the punch line with the other. These kinds of back and forth bits are the real juice of self author/illustrated books and they aren’t really available anywhere else. They are also the most fun, exciting, difficult, challenging, mystifying and satisfying bits to work on and always worth the effort.
I believe that by both writing and illustrating a story you can lay down deep and powerful roots that can grow into a tale that is greater than the sum of its parts and has real meaning and value to those lucky enough to appreciate all of your hard work.
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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!