Tag Archives: creativity

Are You the One?

In 2017 (when we still gathered in big sweaty, breathing, coughing groups and didn’t find anything extraordinary about it) I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert speak. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, her then recent book, Big Magic, was about nurturing creativity.

She had/has a fascinating belief that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she put in in Big Magic:

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

She also believes that ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else. But you still need to “interview” your ideas to make sure it’s right for you and you’re right for it.

At the time, I blogged about the questions I’d like to ask my auditioning ideas, and it seems to be a good time to repost–so many of my writer and artist friends are feeling re-charged.

Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. And I sometimes have a hard a hard time figuring out which ideas are worth the effort and which aren’t. When I first started writing, there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” It’s more intuitive than formalized. But after hearing Gilbert talk, I put together a list of interview questions for my idea applicants:

  • Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?
  • What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?
  • Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?
  • Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

And I had some questions for myself as the boss:

  • Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?
  • Is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I like to ask:

  • Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?
  • If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?
  • If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?
  • If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and child-friendly?
  • Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?
  • I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you interest me, energize me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,

like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

Bring out the toys and the dreams

Maybe it’s burnout from the quarantine or the accumulation of years of working or maybe I’m just extra aware these days, but so many people around me are wishing that they could get back to play and to joy, not only in their lives, but in their work.

Back in March for Books Around the Table, I wrote about some of the ideas that children’s author Laurel Snyder shared about how she brought play back into her work. Check it out here.

Here’s a grab bag of some of Snyder’s other suggestions

Back to the toy box

Remember those dolls you loved as a kid? Or the stuffed animals or the Legos or the GI Joe doll? If you’re reading this, you’re probably a storyteller and that’s what your toys were all about. Stories. Adventures. Created worlds. According to Snyder, maybe it’s time to bring them back into your life.

Snyder’s particular love as a child was paper dolls to the point where she made her own. She also loved all kinds of other dolls from the chubby cheeks of Madame Alexander dolls to Barbie’s sculpted cheekbones. In her grown-up office, she has a doll house where she routinely creates different scenarios. I couldn’t quite determine if the scenarios always related to a book she was working on or if the dolls were having a life of their own in that house. Either way, childhoods toys can bring back pure play into the art of storytelling.

Time travel

Remember how it felt to be called to the front of the class to give a report? Or when your best friend was suddenly with someone else at recess? Or the first time someone you actually knew actually died? 

Some people can readily put themselves back into their childhoods. Some of us think we can, but maybe we’ve forgotten the real intensity of what we felt or the questions and worries that flooded our minds. 

One way to get back the feelings of childhood is to put yourself back there. You can dream yourself back there through thoughtful remembering. But even better, how about getting down on the ground and back into a childhood perspective? What comes back if you sit under the dining room table? What happens to time if you lie on the grass and study that scrambling ant all the way back to the nest? What’s it like to sit on your kitchen floor and stare up at that glass on the counter? What would it feel like to reach for it with the very tips of your fingers?

Once in awhile I get back to my hometown of Wenatchee and drive by the house I grew up in. I’m lucky. My neighborhood was declared an historic district and there is an effort to preserve the houses there, so it looks much the same as it did when I was a child. So much comes flooding back on those visits. How long has it been since your visited a place from your childhood or looked at those old report cards or took out that crumbling prom corsage?

Keep a story box

JK Rowling did this for her first Harry Potter book. She kept a box (eventually a pretty big box) full of writing—random thoughts, inspirations, scenes, details on scraps of paper. It included hundreds of ideas about the world she was creating–the look of a character, the rules of magic,  major plot turns, interesting names. This is what she turned to when she started work on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

For your story box, Snyder suggests mementos. A stone from the beach that your character lives on or an oddity that simply, for now, just intrigues you or a button that might go on the great-aunt’s dress. The idea is another way to get at what it is you’re trying to do with your story, through the fun of simply collecting interesting things.

Enter your world through its small details

I loved this bit of advice from Snyder. We can spend a lot of our time picturing the castle, the mountain pass, the monsters and the maps of our world, but maybe we can enter it even more fully through the knickknack on the Queen’s bedside table. 

The details are so much fun to dream about. They don’t require quite the same effort as setting up a tricky plot turn. E.B. White devoted entire lovely paragraphs to the details of Charlotte’s world. I just have to believe it was his love of that sleeping barn and the smells and the sounds that really informed the entire story of Charlotte’s Web from the wonderful characters of Templeton or the geese to Wilbur’s love of slops and leisure to the general sense of love and affection that infused the entire tone and voice of the book. I bet it all began with the smell of manure and hay, and the warmth of that patch of sunlight on the broad back of a pig.

Time to Play

There comes a time in most creative lives when the joy gets lost. The doing of your art—your poetry, your books, your drawings, your cooking, your sewing, your teaching—becomes a chore.

I’ve gone through this cycle a number of times—the loss and the rediscovery of the spark that set me on my journey to be a writer. In a recent Zoom presentation for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), author Laurel Snyder had some great observations about this same process for her.

She discovered that as the publishing of her work became easier, the writing became harder. As an eight-year-old, she had loved to create stories for no other reason than it was fun; it was exciting. It was play. I remember feeling like that, too, at eight and nine and ten. I loved inhabiting my imaginary world; I loved playing with it; I loved changing things to my exact desires.

But, as I did, Snyder found she lost the joyful need to tell a story somewhere in developing her ability to crank out a book. 

“I needed to find the play again,” she said.

For the first step, she suggested a really difficult thing: 

Step Away from Rewards

 “We do the things we’re good at which are typically some version of the things we’ve been good at for a long time because we will gain respect or appreciation, because we get a boost when somebody compliments us.”

Often that thing we get good at, becomes the thing we need to do to make a living “otherwise they come and take away the house or the car or there’s no food in the fridge.” 

Bottom line is we end up avoiding activities that don’t seem to advance the thing we’ve learned to do well and that we now need to do to make a living.

To get back to play, “you need to step away from the idea of utility and you need to step away from the idea of external appreciation, compliments and rewards”.

She acknowledged that this was the hardest thing we can do. “It’s a gigantic emotional leap.” But without it we won’t really get into true play.

“You aren’t going to do [these] things…because they will help your book…you’re going to do them because they feel good. And it will be awesome if your book improves…but you [want to] find a way to enjoy them so much that it doesn’t matter what happens to the book.”

Learning to disconnect from rewards won’t get your book written, but it will help you make a better book and keep you writing for life.”

Notice that important qualifier at the end—keep you writing for life. Because if you can’t keep the joy, if what once was play is now a chore, you’ll stall out. Maybe you can slog along if there’s a sure paycheck or retirement account at the end, but that’s rarely the case with your creative outlet. 

So if you want to keep doing that thing you love, how do you get back to that feeling of joy and fun?

Turn off the lights

Not to sleep but to daydream, to muse, to imagine, to dwell in the world you’re building in your book (or painting or poem or classroom). What Snyder started doing was to go into her room, turn out the lights and daydream about her book world for about an hour.

Mostly, she said, she moved around inside the world she was creating and imagined the details. You’re not going to record any of this, Snyder said. You’re not going to write it down or add it to your notes on your phone. But a lot of the things you imagine will probably make it into your book and your story world will come alive.

I remember so well how I did exactly this as a child. How much I simply adored lying there and pretending that I was in whatever magical land I wanted to be in. I remember how I lovingly crafted the details–going over and over exactly how my princess bedroom would be furnished, how that dragonfly carriage looked, exactly what my flower petal fairy dress looked like. Usually the plot of the story I was imagining wouldn’t advance one mote, but I knew in my heart what the dungeon looked like.

I don’t think I can do this for an hour, but I’d like to try 15-20 minutes where I simply daydream and allow myself to explore what my world looks like and feels like. I want to enjoy the sheer imagining of the beauty or the devastation I’m creating.

Develop the other side of your brain 

For those of us who are primarily writers that means drawing, painting, sketching our story world. 

“It’s been without question the most successful tool for my own purposes and yet it took me decades to discover, largely because I was stuck, as most of us are, in a grown-up mindset.”

Since she wasn’t any good at drawing, Snyder started with something that didn’t require a lot of skill. A map. In this case it was a map of an island she was imagining—an island where only orphaned children lived—which became the basis of her book, Orphan Island–A National Book Award Longlist title, recipient of starred reviews and, now, a future movie.

Of course, it’s rather ironic to mention that success up against the dictum to step away from rewards. But regardless of any external success allowing yourself to play creatively should give you a better book. You will have given your world the love and attention it deserves to truly come alive for you and the reader.

For those who already use the right (drawing) side of the brain (supposedly, since it’s turning out it’s not really as simple as that), maybe you could discover some way to play more with words that expand your story world for you: poems about your world, rhymes, skip-rope songs, bits of dialog, bits of dialect. Even if they won’t end up in the work, you will know better how that character moves, looks, expresses themselves.

What else might spark you that you rarely do now that you’re a mature creator. Dance out a character, a scene? Make up a song? Play with your kids stuffed animals or action toys? Make a paper mâché model of something in your book?

It doesn’t have to be any good!

What you do doesn’t have to be presentable at all. No one is grading you, no one is looking over your shoulder, no one ever has to see it. No one expects you to be any good. You’re a kid. You’re only playing.

In all, Snyder offered 8 different steps that helped her get back to play. I’ll list a few more of them in a future blog.

Laurel Snyder is the author of six novels for children, “Orphan Island,” “Bigger than a Bread Box,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Any Which Wall,” “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess,” and “Seven Stories Up.” She has also written many picture books, including “Charlie and Mouse,” “The Forever Garden,” “The King of Too Many Things,” “Swan, the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” “Inside the Slidy Diner,” Good night, laila tov,” “Nosh, Schlep, Schluff,” “The Longest Night,” “Camp Wonderful Wild,” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.”

Snyder has published work in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, and she teaches in the MFAC program at Hamline University, and also in the creative writing department at Emory University.

Let’s escape…

The last two weeks have been doozies (since I was born in 1906, I get to say that… jk which is a newer bit of slang). Anyway, I’m not feeling like being very serious right now. So let’s escape. In my collection of images about books and reading there are lots of repeating motifs and themes–books and cats, reading and cafes, books and beds, books and birds, reading and women, etc.–but probably the overwhelming theme is escape into another world, into self, into peace.

So this week let’s go. Let’s run away together.

Illustration by Iker Ayerstaran

Illustration by Tuylek

Illustration by Joost Swarte

Illustration by Caroline Magerl

Illustration by Javier Naverette

Photo by Hesham Alhumaid

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Achiki

Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli

Illustrator not known (anybody recognize?)

Illustration by Remy Coutarel

The love of doing, redoing and not doing

In a year of great doing, and the sometimes even harder task of not doing, we thought we’d pause and share our appreciation of the things that give us joy, purpose and meaning no matter what is happening in the world around us.

Julie let what she loves–creating images and writing–speak for itself.

Flourish and Grow by Julie Paschkis

By Julie Paschkis

Planting Thoughts by Laura Kvasnovsky

Illustration by Mila Marquis

Here you are again, on your knees in the dirt. 

Close your eyes and feel the sun warm on your back and the dry papery husks of the bulbs in your hand: Muscari armeniacum.

Breathe in the sharp scent of sandy soil and the darker fragrance of compost and leaf mulch, and hear the birds, if they chirp, and the rustle of the breeze.

The earth waits. Dig in and settle the bulbs, grateful for that ancient impulse to grow, to bloom, to go to seed, to fade.

And grateful for the turning of the seasons that finds you here again, on your knees in the dirt.

Mending by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Dress and photo by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Close your eyes and think about the clothes you are wearing.

Think about everything that went into making them: 

The people who put them together, somewhere in the world, 

the plants and animals and energy that were used in making them.

We mend in gratitude for all these things. 

We practice patience. We practice acceptance. 

We embrace imperfection as part of what makes everything unique.

Words Full of Promise by Julie Larios

Illustration by Piero Schirinzi

I’m a poet. To me, being a poet means using words – individual words – words made of evocative letters. How can letters evoke feelings? Well, when I see the letter “j,” I love the dip it takes below the line, the little hook that feels rebellious, non-conformist. I love the letter “z” in a word, because it feels (and even sounds) strange; it’s a letter that can’t decide if it wants to go forward or backward. When you write it, it reverses direction. It’s a letter full of doubt, and I prefer doubt to certainty. The letter “k” is a bit aggressive, very certain, the Genghis Khan of letters. Each letter of the alphabet has a unique personality, yet together they cooperate, they cohere, they form little societies called words. 

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for each letter of the alphabet, and for the way letters make words and words make poems, and poems are, by nature, inclusive, they invite people of differing experiences to contemplate shared feelings – they help us share a spot at the Thanksgiving table. 

I invite you to think about the shapes of letters. Rebellious, uncertain, bold, shy – you’ll find their nature if you look. String some together into a word, two words, three. Don’t worry about grammar yet. Build a poem with one-syllable words. Right now I’m thinking of the word “thirst.” Begins with a “t,” ends with a “t.” That word feels suspended in time -something hangs in the balance, makes a growl. Then I consider the word “juice.” Playful. Generous. Put them together for a two-word poem, full of promise – “Thirst? Juice!”

Sleep by Bonny Becker

Illustration by Eugeni Balakshin

Close your eyes and think about sleep.

Turn off noise, color, fear, hate, right, wrong.

Even love can wait.

Nothing needs you right now.

Turn off the story.

Slip over the edge into the velvet void.

Nothing needs you right now. 

Be done today with do.

Rest and begin anew. 





Thank you from all of us to all of you.

Read a book. Turn on a light.

Recently, I went searching for new images to add to my collection of images of books featured in art. A funny theme began to emerge with the images I was finding.

It was books as light—books as sources of illumination–an obvious metaphor, but funny to see so many of them popping up in what was a pretty short, random search.

There are books to come home to…

Illustration by Mariusz Stawarski

There are books to light the way

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

And books that light the way to dimensions far from home

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

Of course, it’s not so much about books, but illumination in whatever form it comes to us.

Illustration by Matt Murphyred

Some knowledge can be dangerous–radioactively so.

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

It can even lead you astray. Although I’m not sure if the artist is commenting on the content or the form here.

Illustration by Brian Fitzgerald

Sometimes books are all sweetness and light…

Illustration by Takashi Tsushima

Sometimes they are their own source of darkness and confusion.

Illustration by Franco Matticchio

Whatever they are, books beckon…

Illustration by Quint Buchholz

especially in times like these.

 

 

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

How Pictures Work

Once upon a time, the children’s book illustrator, Molly
Bang, was told she really didn’t understand how pictures worked. Bang agreed and set out to learn more.
She took classes, read books and went to art museums. Eventually she set out to create a composition with emotional resonance from the most basic elements–simple geometric forms and a palette limited to four colors: red, black, white and lavender.
She decided to see how this all worked with the story Little Red Riding Hood beginning with the idea of the girl as red triangle.
Of course, this choice echos the idea of a hood and the color is obvious, but beyond that, she asked herself, “Do I feel anything about this shape.” Although it wasn’t exactly fraught with emotion, she knew she felt some things about it.
How about you?
Here’s what Bang came up with: it isn’t huggable because it has points. It feels stable because of its flat bottom and equal sides. And red makes it feel bold, flashy–a good color for a main character. Molly also felt danger, vitality, passion. She felt that added up to the feeling of a warm, alert, stable, strong, balanced character. It did more than simply echoing the name of the story.
Then she set about making the forest. She tried triangles for the trees…
…but eventually settled on rectangles.
She liked how you can’t see the tops of the trees, suggesting how tall they are and how she could create a sense of depth. Now to put Little Red Riding Hood into the scene…
…but this wasn’t as as menacing as Bang wanted.
So she made Red much smaller. And she needed room for the wolf.
But before introducing the wolf, she knew she could create even more sense of danger.
Diagonals create a sense of instability, so now she had Red out in an older, more primal forest, a less certain place, and it was time to bring in the wolf.
It’s obvious why she would choose sharp triangles and to bring him into the forefront. Even so, she thought she’d experiment with what happened if she changed various elements.
How about if she made him smaller?
Or softened the triangles?
Or changed his color?
She went back to her first instincts. And set out to make him even scarier.
What big teeth he has.
What big eyes. But let’s make them more menacing.
Nothing has changed but the color. Not only is red–the color of blood and fire–more threatening than lavender, it links the wolf with his prey.
What if you changed the eye shape?
I was surprised how much difference it made. He looks slightly goofy. Maybe this would be the way to go if you wanted to do a Little Red Riding Hood spoof of some sort.
But Bang wanted to push the menace.
So more “blood”.
And finally she made it a gloomier day and, just for the fun of it, added even more focus on those sharp, sharp triangles of teeth.
This is how Molly Bang’s classic book, “Picture This. How Pictures Work” begins. The rest of her book talks more about basic composition and how it works. What horizontals do. What verticals do. How to make things look stable and unstable. How to create momentum and depth, chaos, calm and drama simply by compositional elements.
She talks about her theories as to why these elements work the way they do, often linking back to primal instincts–such as pointed shapes feeling scarier than rounded shapes or curves. One can hurt you, the other is less likely to.
It’s fun to think of these same principles and how you might apply them to writing. For example, I’m thinking of the sense of character created by a plump woman with sharp eyes. After all, we writers are in the business of creating pictures, too.
I would highly recommend “Picture This: How Pictures Work” for anyone interested in art or picture books. Or just for the fun of it!

The Little Red Book

Illustration by Consuelo Mura

The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”

Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way.  And I began to notice a lot of red books in art (* see my reader’s note below).  Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests its own story:

You can escape from the everyday…

Agata Raczynska

Agata Raczynska

into an imagined passion

Illustration by Phil Jones

Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton

Or maybe it’s a real world passion

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

Or  forbidden fruit

Jean F. Martin

Jean F. Martin

 

Illustration by Toni Demuro

 

Alessandro Gottardo

Alessandro Gottardo

Or perhaps red, is after all,  just a mystery

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.

Illustration by Nakamura Daizaburo

 

And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.

 

*Readers note: This is a reprint of a post I did in July 2014, but with some additional red book images.

Making Your Illustration Notes Work for You

Illustration by Jonathan Cooper

One of the first rules pounded into you as an aspiring picture book writer is, no matter how vivid your vision of your book is, you aren’t the illustrator. Sadly, you don’t get to decide that your protagonist is redhead with braids who lives in a split level home, at least not as an instruction to the illustrator. If you do add it as part of the text, always think about how necessary those words are. Don’t bog down a picture book text with non-essential details.

So you quickly learn that you shouldn’t sprinkle your manuscripts with detailed descriptions of what the illustrations will show. That will be up to the editor, art director and, most specifically, the illustrator.

In fact, you’ll find as you move into the publishing process that usually the author and the illustrator are kept out of contact, rather like the buyer and seller in a real estate deal. Most editors want the communication to go through them. Their job is to respect the creative talents of both the author and the illustrator.

So, no illustration notes…

Except, of course, when there are. When you need them. Usually for obvious reasons such as when the text contradicts what the illustration needs to show. For example, I might write:

Biff was so excited to be the new class monitor.
(Illustration note: clearly Biff isn’t excited at all. The last thing class clown Biff wants to do is police other kids).

 I don’t know if there are any rules about how to format illustration notes. The example above is how I do them. Separated from the regular text by spacing, in parenthesis, labeled as “Illustration note:” to make it crystal clear that what follows isn’t text. And all set in italics. But I’m sure other writers handle them in different ways.

One approach that does seem pretty universal is to put your note in present tense. It makes it more vivid, more immediate. Just as an illustration is more immediate.

I have another less obvious reason for sometimes putting in illustration notes. Your first reader is going to be an agent or an editor. They don’t yet have the illustrations to help them along. Most of the time this is good and it’s another reason to not use illustration notes. You want the editor to start owning this story. You want their imagination to start going to work. An experienced editor doesn’t need your help to start picturing what the illustrations will do.

Your text, hopefully, will create a mood, a tone, a particular experience for the reader. Sweet, funny, warm, old-fashioned, wacky. You can’t always know where the editors imagination will go, so don’t constrain it by illustration notes.

BUT…  if I think a note is necessary for the book to “work,”for the story to come across as effectively and persuasively as it can I’ll put one in.  It’s rarely comes up and it’s a tough call to make. Is this story more effective with that note or not? Tempted as you are to steer the editor to a certain reading (this is a warm, cozy story set in a Tudor cottage, damn it!) 99% of the time you’re going to want to restrain that impulse.

Here’s a specific example that I think shows all those elements at work. The other day I was critiquing a picture book in one of my writing groups. My friend is an experienced, excellent picture book writer, but she rarely has had to do illustration notes. I won’t use her actual words, but below is essentially what was happening in her story.

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl points at the rising moon with her dog beside her)
“The moon.”

The basic story was about the seasons using lovely lyrical language detailing the changes in nature. But each section ended with a girl and her dog experiencing something from the changes. The twosome are, however, never explicitly mentioned in the text, and it wasn’t always clear from the text what the two were experiencing. The pictures would carry that part of the story. So, illustration notes seemed justified.

But thinking about that agent or editor’s reading experience, I suggested the following edit:

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl, her dog beside her, points at the rising moon.)

 I thought this would create a more vivid experience for the editor. Number one: rather than bury that all-important rising moon in the middle of the note, move it to the end where it will stand out as the final image you’ve called the reader’s attention to. And, number two: I thought seeing the moon, having the reader look as the character instructs, was more effective than adding to what the illustration would show–the moon.

It seemed to me that the editor would have an experience closer to that of a child reader who might hear the word “Look,” then perhaps there would be a page turn, and then the sight of the moon. No words necessary in the text. But in this case, totally necessary as an illustration note to give the editor the experience you want her to have reading your story.

And, notice that you’re not telling the illustrator what the moon looks like. Who knows what they might come up with, and that’s half the fun!