Wednesday, 30 July 2014

What Writers Can Learn from Illustrators

By Candy Gourlay

Writing novels is an honourable way to make a living, but sometimes you can feel like you're so deep in the cave of your imagination there is no such thing as real life.

To stop my brain turning into a cow-pat from spending too much time in the writer's cave, I've been trying to diversify a little bit. Last year, I attended a graphic novel course where I made comics. That was such a success that I signed up to attend last weekend's SCBWI Picture Book Retreat for writers and illustrators of picture books.

We stayed at Holland House, a beautiful Tudor retreat centre 
Alexis Deacon (Beegu, Slow Loris) set us up with mind expanding activities and Helen Stephens (Fleabag, How to Hide a Lion) showed us her sketchbooks and talked about how she developed her ideas.  Maria Tunney, Senior picture book editor for Walker, and Sarah Malley, deputy art director for Egmont, came to talk to us about the publishing process.

Alexis and Helen

Throughout the weekend with my sketchbook-toting colleagues, I kept getting little epiphanies about writing.

Here's a little list of what I learned from my weekend with illustrators.

1. Teach yourself to see in a different way.
Alexis warned the artists: "If you draw like a camera with no engagement with your subject you will end up with nothing." Simply replicating what you see is not enough. What makes a drawing a work of art is the uniqueness of the eye, the illustrator's ability to engage with the subject on an emotional level.

We writers would do well to take heed. While mastering our craft is important, we should never forget that for a book to move a reader, it needs not only words but heart.

2. Keep going until you find something fresh and new.
How can you make your good idea a great idea? "Don't just stop at 'the good idea',"Egmont's Sarah Malley urged us. "Keep going until you find something fresh and new." A good idea is just the beginning of your journey. Turning it into a good book demands real graft. Said Maria Tunney of Walker: "Ask every question until you've distilled (the idea) to its purest form."

We writers are often guilty, once we decide on a high concept, of hurrying our books to their conclusion. A good book is not just plot and arc and all those things we read about in How To books. A good book only reveals itself after an author has tried to find the answer to every question that her story asks of her.

3. Are you using your own voice?
Helen Stephens began her picture book career creating baby books with cute, flat characters that sparkled. "I felt like I was in this weird happy world of brightness," she said. "It looked like I was doing really well, but a secret voice kept saying: 'You are not using your real voice!'" Sometimes, she said, it felt like she would have to hold onto her arm and force herself to draw in that style. She went back to the sketching that she had loved as a young art student and it is through sketching that she now evolves her stories.

Helen making herself draw flat and sparkly things. From my sketchbook.
When we are only beginning to write, it is natural that we try to evoke the voices of our favourite writers. But we must make an effort to find our own. This is what will make our fiction unique. It is said there are only so many plots in existence on which to hang a story. What makes each book special if everyone's using the same plot? The author.

4. What you don't see might be the story.
Helen told the story of how she went to the zoo to draw lions, in the hope of writing a lion story. Day after day, she sat by the lion enclosure. But the lions never showed themselves. Then she realised that was it. That was the story: how to hide a lion.

"The story came out of being in the moment," Helen said. "Seeing an object, an incident, a funny quirky thing ... and then asking the questions that lead to a story."

I really struggle to "be in the moment" when I'm writing. I have to get out of the house to put my head in the right space before I can get writing. Only then can I begin asking the questions that lead to the story. The world of distraction around us makes it hard to be in the moment and we must do what we have to do to put ourselves in the right place to write.

5. Go out. See things.
We authors and illustrators love our books. Unfortunately the result can be that our books are homages to the books we love. Other books become our references. "It's a bit like living in a city where everything is pre-digested by someone else," Alexis said. "It's as if there's only one way to live."

Alexis made us go out into the beautiful gardens of the retreat house to spend a little time looking at things, see and experience the world for ourselves. Then he asked us back to describe what our very own, unadulterated, unreferenced observations. Here's a page from my sketchbook where I jotted down some of the descriptions people came back with of the birds, butterflies and various creepy crawlies they looked at.

The top right bubble is my rather garbled note of what Alexis said before he sent us out: It will be a challenge but you will find the words. And we did. 

With heartfelt thanks to Anne-Marie Perks and Bridget Strevens-Marzo for organising a fantastic weekend. And to Holland House for their gorgeous hospitality and accommodation.


  1. Loved this, Candy. And especially the go out, see things picture. I'm heading out to watch bees right now...

    1. Thanks, Sandra. After that retreat, I find I've gone up a level in noticing things.

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  2. I adore your perceptive enthusiasm, Candy. It's always intriguing to read a report on something I've also attended. I discover things I hadn't really pondered and it gets me thinking again. Great! Being new to illustration, I was especially interested in Helen's talk about the development of her art and little things like the impact of using a splash of white background to draw attention to an object. Plus having Bridget sitting next to me during the talk was a lovely bonus and I'm now off to order the Caran D'ache crayons she let me try. For me, the retreat was about lots of small moments - they're what I remember. And flowers and new friends.

    1. I loved how illustrators were always having geeky conversations about kit. I'm off to buy Faber Castell 9000 jumbo pencils!

    2. And yes, the flowers! I only posted half of the photos I took of the flowers. I also liked the fact that there was a small number and the mix of published and unpublished people, writers and artists. We were all mentoring each other. So lovely.

  3. Great write-up - brings it all back. I miss my autistic bee! Am now trying to see everything in a new way....makes for interesting conversations with husband.

    1. It's been fun reporting back to my husband. Plus I've got the sketching bug now!

    2. What a great piece, Candy. I wish I could draw. Maybe one day I'll take lessons. And the tip to go out into the world and notice things is so valuable for writing too.

    3. Helen, it's great to leave one's comfort zone once in a while. Though I found the workd of illustrators rather too comfortable. I loved it so much I might change careers.

  4. Candy - great journalism as usual - I'm still recreating the retreat in my garden. I didn't want to leave. This has to be the best SCBWI event to date for me. Yes - all the mentoring from fellow Scoobies was a bonus. Love your dialogue bubbles. You write fast!

    1. Yup. Definitely the best for me too! Lived your blog post about it!

  5. Thanks for the write up Candy, I hope to get to this one year, I know it would do wonders for me. Flippers crossed it's next year !

  6. Thanks Candy! Fascinating and informative as always.

    1. I was sorry you weren't there, Heather! Next year?

  7. Ooo - what a fabulous place! Eye-opening and insightful - thanks, Candy

  8. What a great report Candy! I love your illustrated note-taking...what a fab weekend it was, can't wait for next year...


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