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Working Together: The Relationship
Writers and Illustrators
by John Wallace - Illustrator

John has had many of his own books published, mainly picture books for 3 to 7 year olds. He has also illustrated other people's books, and it's the latter process he is writing about here.

Which comes first, the manuscript or the picture? In a book where the author and illustrator are not the same people, it is always the words which come first.

What does this mean? Well it's good for the writer. He gets to do many of the juicy things, like choose all the character's names, and work out who does what and who is like what. But it's also bad for the writer, because he is the one presented with the blank sheet of paper to fill in. He has to invent the whole lot, characters, places, plot, and theme - the whole works.

It is important that the illustrator recognises this. Writing a 250-word picture book text only looks easy - in much the same way that it looks easy for an athlete to run quickly. People (or more specifically illustrators) don't always realise how much work goes into making something look easy and fluid.

However, there is another side to this coin. I have heard writers who are convinced that the grass is greener - that illustrators are making easy money. All they have to do is do some pictures and because they can draw, this is easy. Here the same point about it only looking simple holds true. Drawing only looks easy. Those characters which are drawn with such consistency take a lot of rehearsing. There's undreamed of activity behind the scenes.

There are some instances in which writing is harder than illustrating. A thumb nail sketch will show how something looks, what someone is wearing, for example, far more readily than having to describe it. But again the reverse can also be true. I can write '5,000 horsemen' a lot more quickly than I can draw them.

As a writer, the quickest way to get your illustrator's back up will be to undervalue him. In England we recognise writers more than illustrators. Can you tell me, for example, who illustrated Thomas the Tank Engine? Clearly the all important, world-beating, golden nugget of the concept is down to the Reverend Awdry, but how much do he and Britt Alcroft owe to the likes of C Reginald Dalby (I told you you wouldn't have heard of him) - the illustrator of Thomas?

My point here is that the only good working relationship between an author and illustrator is one of mutual respect. Both sides work harder than it may at first seem. To work well, both parties need to be part of the creative process. After all, in a short children's text there will be many gaps in the descriptive narrative which the writer expects the reader to fill in his minds eye. This is a luxury you enjoy far less as an illustrator. In a Picture Book, a writer may not have to say anything about a character's dress, but an illustrator can't get away with that. He will have to specify right down to the pattern on their shirt exactly what his character is wearing. This is all time consuming work.

It is annoying then, to say the least, when a writer refers to you as 'my illustrator' in the same way they might refer to 'my plumber'. You can be pretty sure that any illustrators worth their salt will see themselves at the heart of the creative process; that they will see the book as theirs as well as yours. Open up and let them in - that's my advice -you'll get a better book as a result.

by John Wallace


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