Friday 21 July 2017

Coming Out

By Nick Cross

Photo by Ruffroot Creative

How long did it take you to pluck up the courage to tell someone you wanted to be a writer? I can remember it was a long while before I would admit to it in public, and there are still times when I’m not sure (usually when the writing is going badly). But recently, I’ve been troubled by an even bigger secret, something I’ve been dimly aware of for some years but also terrified of admitting:

I want to be a writer/illustrator.

When I revealed this information at the recent SCBWI Picture Book Retreat, I was surprised to find that nobody laughed at me. In fact, everyone was broadly supportive of my new creative orientation. So perhaps it’s only me who worries this is a terrible idea.

I’m sure if I was to pick any agent or editor at random on Twitter and ask them this question: “My friend is an amateur artist. Should I get them to illustrate my book before I send it to you?” the answer would be a polite but firm: “No.” Amateur artists have a long and storied history of ruining promising books before they ever get a sniff of publication. So why would my amateur art be any different?

What I should do is open up Word, write a terrific story and stop worrying my pretty little head about stuff like design, layout and illustration - all those things that are firmly above my pay grade.

And yet...

I haven’t had so much fun in years of pure writing as I have from a few months of designing, illustrating and laying out my own illustrated novel. Suddenly, everything is story, from the first word on the page to the last doodle in the margin. Now I can be the ultimate control freak and tell the story exactly the way I envisaged it. The power! The power!

OK, time to calm down a bit. Where did this strange illustration urge come from? Well, after much reflection, I can mostly blame Sarah McIntyre. I met Sarah in early 2010 and vividly remember the Social Networking session she featured in at that year's SCBWI-BI Conference. At the end of that panel, I turned to my neighbour and said the words “I want to be Sarah McIntyre,” a fact recorded in the blog post I wrote shortly afterwards. At the time, I was suffering from serious depression, so consciously I was talking about channelling Sarah’s confidence, exuberance and all-round joie de vivre. But unconsciously, there was clearly some other stuff going on.

Sarah McIntyre signing books at the 2010 conference (photo by Kathryn Evans)

But still, I hesitated to pick up a pencil. Drawing was a scary, alien activity to me. And every time I tried to sketch someone, I got a picture of a scary alien instead (which was definitely not what I intended). It probably doesn’t help that my wife is a professional artist, who started drawing in childhood. I always felt that there was an unspoken non-competition agreement in our marriage – she wouldn’t try writing if I didn’t try my hand at drawing. I reckon this was mostly in my head, however, when I think about the various art products she’s given me over the years in an attempt to get me started (mostly without success).

Which brings me on to the confusing world of art materials. The great appeal of writing is its accessibility - all you really need is a biro, a cheap pad of A4 paper and the ability to string a sentence together. This accessibility is also true of illustration, though to a novice it certainly doesn’t look that way. In fact, the massive range of art materials can be totally baffling. Some of this doubtless comes down to technique, personal preference and the effect you want to achieve. But the cynical part of me says it’s all about selling practically the same product to artists again and again. Why have one type of coloured pencil when fifty would do? Why have one type of brush when you can sell hundreds? And so on. While some people might welcome the opportunity to experiment, I find this level of choice freezes me up. It conveys the message that I can’t be a “proper” artist unless I use exactly the right art materials.

I don’t want this article to read like a list of excuses, but there’s another key reason for my fear of drawing. I have no visual imagination - a condition also called aphantasia (see the excellent blog posts by Addy Farmer and Juliet Clare Bell for much more about the condition). Since I can’t rely on pictures in my head to guide what I’m drawing, I would have to work from photos or from life. However, that’s exactly what my wife does (since it weirdly turns out that she has aphantasia too) and she’s a pretty damn good artist!

See more by Claire Cross at her Facebook gallery

So, what broke my drawing block and prompted this coming out as a writer/illustrator? It started gradually, when I worked on a highly-illustrated middle grade novel called Max Tastic’s Guide to Internet Stardom with SCBWI illustrator Paul Morton. I suggested to Paul that we could collaborate and sent him several samples of my work. Max was the character Paul immediately latched onto, and he got to work producing character designs and page layouts. Due to my lack of visual imagination, I had no idea what the characters in my story looked like, so I was delighted by what Paul came up with. But I was somewhat surprised to find I had a lot of opinions on the layouts and how the various elements combined to tell the story. I could see how the eye of the reader needed to be guided around the page, and how to organise page turns for maximum surprise value.

Once Max was out on submission, my thoughts turned (very gradually) to my next children's novel. I realised that I wanted to do something equally graphical, but also that I was sick and tired of the whole process of trying to get buy-in from the publishing industry. I decided to create a self-published illustrated novel from the ground up, which meant I would need to do everything myself: words, images, typography and layouts. I’m already pretty competent with Photoshop, so from a technical perspective I only had to get to grips with InDesign and the way the two integrate. For cost reasons, I have hideously old versions of both of these applications, but so far they are doing the job.

That just left the tricky part - creating the artwork. The concept behind the book is that the protagonist is creating the majority of the illustrations, which allows me to include some deliberately imperfect art. Hopefully, it will be charmingly imperfect! I listed what materials my protagonist would have to hand, and this boiled down to a set of permanent marker pens of different sizes. For aesthetic and cost reasons, I’m intending to publish the book in black-and-white, so that meant I only needed black ones! Here’s what I’ve collected so far:

I’m very much learning about illustration as I go along. My wife recently bought me some special non-bleed marker pen paper which I hadn’t realised even existed – it’s far better than the thick cartridge paper I’d previously been using.

It turns out that I’m pretty good at imagining what I want a picture to be. I’d hesitate to call it “visualising,” but I’m at least able to express the drawing in words, in a similar way to writing a description in a story. Once I have the description, I can then turn that into a piece of artwork using found images (either public domain or Creative Commons). This is not an easy process, but I think my lack of visual expectation makes it easier for me to enjoy the finished result (which is a refreshing change from the insane perfectionism I tend to apply to the written word).

Here’s an example of a description I wrote for myself:

Advert for concert with winning design of someone playing the tuba, printed on half US letter sized glossy paper. Fold it in half and then flatten it out. Perhaps work in colour until the final stage? Photographing may be better than scanning to show the shine on the paper. Photoshop treat photograph or find royalty-free painting?

Here’s the public domain photo I selected (this is actually a sousaphone, but it's close enough):

Photo by Bryant Watson

And here’s the finished artwork:

I didn’t need to print it out and re-photograph it because I found some neat Photoshop tricks that made the image look like it was folded.

I am never going to be a great artist, or even what you might call an “illustrator”. Right now, because the book needs line drawings in many places, I’m getting around my lack of talent by creating a photomontage from public domain sources and then tracing the result using a lightbox. This feels a lot like cheating, but it does get the job done. I hope in due course to progress to freehand drawings, once my skill and confidence levels increase.

Original royalty-free map from

Scanned tracing with handwriting-style text added

So there you have it. I now feel that I have finally and irrevocably “come out” to you, the internet. In a statement of my intent, I’ve even updated my SCBWI profile:

The skills are listed alphabetically, and I’d prefer it said “writer and illustrator” or even “Writer who foolishly thinks he can draw.” But such things are not to be.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. Hurrah for you! What an exciting project ... it looks fun to make as well as read. Good luck in your quest and well done for coming out!

    1. Thanks Candy! Your support is, as ever, very much appreciated :-)

  2. Brilliant, Nick! I love faddling about with design. You've inspired me to re-animate 'Wilf's World'which has lots of picture inserts and diagrams. Thanks! So much luck with your excellent story.

    1. Cool. Looking forward to seeing the results!

  3. this sounds fantastic and so brave of you! what an inspiration i cant wait to see how it develops it looks like you've had so much fun with it x

    1. Thanks. It's been great to find the joy in creativity again.

  4. I found this so interesting, having privately harboured thoughts about having a go despite my total lack of credentials in the visual arts. Lots of very useful suggestions. Good luck with this venture!

    1. Go for it! I was surprised to find how many excellent free resources are out there on the web, especially for graphic design. Also, check out Julie Sullivan's great blog post about finding free images.

  5. Good for you, Nick. Feeling free to be creative is a wonderful feeling. And I don't think you're the only one who wants to 'be more Sarah'!

    1. Does she have a fan club? I think we should all join.

  6. Great project! And a 'hideously old version' of Photoshop you know well is all you need (I know, I use a hilariously old version).


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