Self-Collaboration

I don’t know how other author/illustrators work. I haven’t spent much time studying this business. I took some creative writing classes in college and was lucky enough to study cartooning with Frank Stack. That said, my style has developed mostly through bullheaded persistence than formal instruction.

Therefore, this process may only work for me. Conversely, it may be the system everyone uses. At the moment I write this, I cannot say. Also, I should point out that this process is for picture books. Other things I’ve done follow a similar pattern, but not one so precise.

I start with a drawing.

Normally, it’s a picture in my head that I put down on paper. Often the final product is different that what I’ve envisioned. That’s okay.

I stare at the drawing as if it were a photograph. Who is this? What were they doing before this “picture” was taken? Where are they going? Who are their friends. Their enemies? Where were they born? How will they die?

In this way, I create an entire history for the character. Then I decide during what part of their life my story will take place. That’s when I start the process of self-collaboration.

The creative world-builder part of me has ideas. Many ideas. Too many ideas. The outliner part of me understands this and tries to force all of those ideas into a narrative structure. More importantly, the outliner throws out things that do not fit. When the outliner’s job is done, there’s a story structure that anyone could follow without knowing much about the rest of the world.

I pass the outline and drawing off to my agent, asking if the book interests him. If my agent thinks it’s something he can sell, I move on to the next step.

I break the outline up among a set number of pages, say, 48. For example, “There she sees a dragon,” might be broken up into “There she sees,” on page 15 and “A dragon,” on page 16. When the entire outline is spread across 48 pages, I put on the author hat.

I go through each page of my outline spread and decide whether words will be needed on that page. Using the above example, “there she sees” and “a dragon” might be eliminated if all I’ll be doing is drawing a princess and a dragon. If so, I simply leave those pages blank for my artist pass. If I’m feeling forgetful I may write [DRAW DRAGON HERE].

If I run across an outline note that says, “She greets the dragon,” I replace it with text that would actually appear in the book. “‘Hello, Dragon,’ she whispered, ‘I hope I didn’t wake you,'” for example. I repeat this process for every page in the book.

When I’ve finished the written manuscript, I put on my artist’s hat. I forget about how long the book is. I try not to give myself a deadline. I put on a comedy podcast or some mindless television. I look at the words on the first page of the manuscript and I draw that. I go on to the next one. I continue until I am done or the outside world intervenes.

Once I’ve finished all of my drawings, I’ll occasionally go back and redraw the first few. I tend to improve my technique as I continue, and it is sometimes a drastic difference. I may be the only one who deals with this issue, but it is a legitimate concern. It should be noted that most of the art is unfinished at this point. My agent only requires four completed pages of art for a submission. The rest are just sketches.

Next, I import the artwork. If I’m working purely digital, this step takes no time. If I’m using traditional media, it’s a huge slog. I often take this time to watch a show with subtitles, a luxury I can’t afford when I’m drawing.

When all the art is scanned, I replace the text with the picture on each page. Then, keeping the text in my mind, I rewrite it to better fit the picture I ended up drawing. The synthesis between the words and the pictures is a hard thing to describe. I just know when something “feels” right to me.

When I have an entire manuscript of words and pictures I convert it to a .pdf and send it to my agent.

From this point forward, I try to separate myself from the book. If my agent tells me something is confusing, I don’t defend it. I pretend that someone handed me someone else’s book and told me to solve the problem. If my agent tells me a company is interested in the book but wants an ogre instead of a dragon, I submit a revised version with drawings of an ogre. I maintain this attitude until the book is sold, then recommit to it until the book is published.

By compartmentalizing each part of the creative process, I am able to move forward incrementally without being overwhelmed by the scope of the project. By separating myself from the material, I am able to make tough choices that could kill a book deal if ignored.

This may not work for everyone, but it’s gotten me through two book deals so far and I am very happy with the results.

Thanks for reading!

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About paulgude

Paul Gude writes small books, makes stupid music, draws silly pictures, and does weird things on stage.
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