Monday, 1 June 2015

Two heads are better than one: The benefits of early author-illustrator collaboration

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that, although people often assume that picture book authors and illustrators work closely together, it’s not unusual for the author and illustrator to have no direct contact, with the book’s creation being co-ordinated via the publisher.

One of my Dutch publishers told me that Dutch authors and illustrators regularly get together with the publisher during a picture book’s production to discuss how the project is progressing. However, if my own experience is anything to go by, regular meetings like this are not the norm in the UK. I’d been writing picture books for ten years before a publisher, Puffin, invited me to get together with illustrator Steve Cox to look at some of Steve’s initial concept sketches for our picture book Pigs Might Fly and discuss how it might be illustrated. Before then, I’d only met two illustrators I’d done a book with and spoken to a couple more on the phone, and this was always after the project was completed.

One reason for this lack of direct contact is that many picture book publishers like to moderate all communication between a book's author and illustrator. In the conventional UK set-up, an author gives any comments or ideas they might have regarding the illustrations to an editor, who then (if they agree with them) passes them on to the illustrator (sometimes via the book's designer). This is obviously a rather slow method of communication and and misinterpretations can occur as the message is passed along the chain. Another disadvantage of the conventional set-up is that while the author has some influence over how the book is illustrated, the illustrator has relatively little influence over how the book is written, the story having been largely hammered out before they are on board.

The line of communication between author and illustrator is often indirect.
(Image taken from my "How a book is Made" school presentations)

When I first started creating picture books I'd intended to both write and illustrate and was in the habit of developing ideas simultaneously in both text and illustration. Although my illustration has largely fallen by the wayside, I still think of stories visually as much as verbally. I'll often get a story idea from looking at an image or conceive a story outline as a series of illustrations. So I've always thought that the conventional set-up, with its lack of direct interaction between author and illustrator, is less than ideal. Fortunately, I've been able to team up with several sympathetic illustrators who have been happy to exchange ideas at an early stage and several of my more recent picture books have been developed in a far more collaborative way.

After Mark Oliver had illustrated my text for Tom’s Clockwork Dragon, he and I were both keen to do another picture book together. So rather than leave it to chance, I asked Mark if there was anything he’d particularly like to illustrate. Mark sent me a list of ideas, one of which – a mechanical monster manual – became Monsters: An Owner’s Guide. We developed the idea between us and when we had a draft of the text and some concept art that we were both happy with, we offered it as a joint project to publishers. Thankfully, Macmillan accepted it and subsequently took Aliens: An Owner’s Guide as a follow-up.

Some of Mark Oliver's early concept art for Monsters: An Owner's Guide

Since then, I’ve worked on several stories where the illustrator has been involved from the initial concept stage and has often provided the initial inspiration. The Treasure of Captain Claw was written in answer to Steve Cox’s wish to illustrate a submarine story and my latest picture book, The Silver Serpent Cup, was written in response to a set of outlandish vehicle models that Ed Eaves had offered as a possible source of inspiration. 

The Silver Serpent Cup and some of the outlandish vehicle models, made by Ed Eaves, that inspired it.

Not all of the author-illustrator collaborations I’ve worked on have made it into print – I wrote two unpublished stories with the late Vanessa Cabban – but I’ve always enjoyed working with the illustrator to create them. And I suspect that, having helped shape the initial concept, the illustrators I’ve created these books with have felt a little more attached to these projects and may have been prepared to lavish a little extra care and attention on them.

Some of Vanessa Cabban's "Clara and Bertie" character sketches from an unpublished project we developed together.

There’s a synergy when text and illustration work well together in a picture book. This happens naturally when the same person is both writing and illustrating, but if the author and illustrator are two different people, such a synergy can be a lot easier to achieve if they get together early on to exchange ideas. I’d certainly recommend it!

My latest collaborative picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.