The matter of illustration instructions in a picture book manuscript can cause many authors consternation. Especially if you’re starting out or haven’t worked with a particular publisher before, you don’t know what their preferences are in terms of illustration instructions and you may be a little uncomfortable with giving your own visual interpretations of your story.
There are two schools of thought on this matter. Some authors and industry experts believe it’s crucial to include illustration instructions. Others believe minimal or no instructions are better and that the text should be able to stand on its own.
I think somewhere in the middle ground is best.
You don’t need to include copious amounts of illustration instructions about your characters or setting or plot. Editors and illustrators don’t need to know that your main character is wearing a red dress or red shoes, for example, unless it’s critical to the story.
But they may need to know that your main character is, for example, confined to a wheelchair, or is a panda bear not a human. When I submit a picture book text to a publisher, I only include the most minimal, most important illustration instructions to provide visual clues. And when I do, the instruction is bracketed and in italics. For example: (Max lives in the city. PK is his dog.).
The idea behind this is that I do like to include crucial information but at the same time I don’t want to stifle the illustrator’s creativity. I want to leave the illustrator plenty of room to bring their own interpretation and layers to the story.
I believe the illustrator needs to love the story as much as the author does. If they’re going to commit to the project, do their best, get behind the book and perhaps even promote it down the track, they must have ownership of the project too. This involves the author giving up a little control, yes, and being flexible.
What you gain far outweighs what you give up.
Illustrators are far more talented and have much more experience and training at thinking and creating visually. So why would I, the wordsmith, take the joy, the passion and the scope of their expertise away by setting down too rigid a structure for them to illustrate in?
It doesn’t make sense.
A common error authors make is to include illustrations with their submissions. Sometimes, they do the illustrations themselves or have paid a friend or someone they know to do these drawings. This can be an expensive and unnecessary exercise.
My advice would be that unless you are a very skilled artist and know a lot about picture books, that you don’t include any illustrations with your picture book submission.
If you’re an author, submit your words only. If you’re an author-illustrator and are confident in both your words and your pictures, then go ahead and submit your text and one or two samples of your artwork. Always check the publisher guidelines before you do this.
If you aren’t an illustrator, this doesn’t mean you can’t draw pictures to match your text. It’s actually a great idea to visualise your story and this can involve drawing thumbnail sketches or creating a storyboard of the entire manuscript. It might also involve you drawing larger sketches or colour images for each of your scenes. I find this particularly helpful.
But, unless you’re a talented artist, I’d suggest that if you’ve written a picture book text that you focus on and submit the words only.