Illustrating the Story

My next book, Shepherding Sam, is coming out in October of this year. Hooray! The words are finished and out of editing. Conversations with the illustrator have begun. I love this part, but it also prompts a brain dance with me, and the brain dance goes like this.

When I wrote the story, I saw it all in my mind’s eye. I didn’t see it as pictures drawn by an artist. I saw it the same way I see the deck, the Japanese maple, and the telephone wires outside my window. I saw it as real. More real than a photograph, which only has two dimensions. I wrote the story that I saw, but of course, I didn’t describe every person, place, puppy, and tree leaf in exact detail. I didn’t describe much at all. I just told the story. So every reader will have to fill in the faces, the leaves, and the puppy, and the illustrator will help them.

But wait!

The illustrator hasn’t SEEN what I saw. Nobody has. Only me!

It’s the difference between words and pictures, between art and medium, between the inward and the outward eyes of a human being.

It comes up whenever someone writes a picture book and is not also an artist, able to illustrate it themselves. Even BUZZFEED knows about this problem. See?

An artist will be assigned to illustrate your story. You may be invited to opine on sketches, but you may not. If you are consulted about art, be humble. This might be hard — you care about your story! — but it’s important to cede some control to the artist. In a good picture book, an illustrator will do at least half of the storytelling. They get to make very important decisions about how your characters look, which events get emphasized, and how the story is paced. It may feel a bit weird to see your character drawn with brown hair instead of blond like you imagined, but unless your text delineates hair color (and it almost certainly shouldn’t), you don’t get to decide. Let the illustrator bring an individual vision to the story. That’s part of the magic of picture books.

–How to Write a Picture Book, by Mac Barnett and Taylor Norman

So the question is, does it matter?

Does it matter if your reader doesn’t see what you saw when you wrote the story?

That depends.

If your story made it all the way through the submission-wait-rejection-wait-resubmission-ad naseum-acceptance-editing-time to find an illustrator process, then at one level, no, it doesn’t matter at all. Your story survived! It’s going to have readers you don’t know and aren’t related to. How and where that happens is interesting, but the fact that it’s happening at all is what matters. Some would say it’s all that matters. That’s certainly true in a commercial sense.

There are other perspectives.

If your inward vision of the story and the illustrator’s conception of it are completely disparate, you might spend a few minutes comparing them and rooting out the specific points at which your visions differ. Some of the differences will be stylistic. For example, I imagine my stories realistically – my people aren’t purple with cute eyes and nobby antennae, and the landscape is not populated with “Dr. Seuss trees.” But the illustrator, either by personal preference or at the request of the publisher and its marketing department, may imagine the story in wholly “unrealistic” ways. It’s unlikely that a story written about human characters and farm animals would be illustrated with space aliens and their space alien pets, but it’s very possible that stylized illustrations will change the look of your story significantly (even without aliens).

But what about differences that are more than stylistic? What if the “feel” of the story escapes your illustrator completely. You could decide that the illustrator isn’t perceptive or didn’t read carefully. But if the illustrations are approved, and your team thinks the project was a success, don’t you have to look in the mirror? Don’t you have to ask yourself if you left something out? If you see an element in your story that no one else sees, there might be a reason.

Writing never ends. You never come to a pinnacle on your journey where you can see the entire landscape. You never achieve your best work. You are only moving toward it along the path, circuitous, meticulous, and by definition, unexpected. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Perhaps the best part of watching your illustrator at work is the concrete realization it brings that your readers, this one and all the other ones to come, are human beings. Like you, they possess that inward eye and its attendant world. Like you, they will never be able to show what they see there to anyone else. Not completely. But also like you, they are sustained and fulfilled, even recreated, in that inner world. And when they read your story, no matter how it appears to them, they invite you in. Human beings can’t enter one another’s thoughts in any other way. Your story can travel across the border into another human life.