Sunday, September 18, 2016

Concept to Completion: Illustrator

Welcome to Reading, Writing, and Reaching for Chocolate. The next stop on the road from concept to completion of a picture book is the Illustrator. Today we have an interview with Vanessa Brantley Newton, Illustrator of My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay, The Hula Hoopin’ Queen, and (one of my personal favorites-literally made me tear up) Sewing Stories. Her most recent illustrations can be seen in Mary Had a Little Glam.

Thank you for joining me Vanessa. So let’s start at the beginning. What happens when you get a call from an art director?

I really love to hear from my art directors, but of late some of them I only get to talk to once or twice on the phone and sometimes not at all.

I prefer a phone call instead of emails. Email sometimes can come across as cold to me. I like to hear the excitement in an art director's or editor's voice. It helps me to understand what they are looking for as well. I like to start all of my projects off with a kick off call. Just to get a feel for who I am going to be working with, what they expect of me and what I in turn want to express through my work.

So when I get a call from art director, they basically tell me what the size or specs of the project are. I am asked if I have any idea of how I will approach the work. If it will be live work (meaning traditional paint, paper, collage) or will it be digital files. We talk about building characters for the stories and if it's historically based, they will sometimes send references and information they have collected to help in the process. Sometimes all I get it the spec of the project and they leave me to created sketches and then after the first round of sketches they will tell me what they would like to see changed and if the author has anything suggestions they include those as well.

 Do you communicate with the art director, the editor, or both?

So, some Publishing houses don't have art directors and it's all left to the editor. I get to work with both and sometimes just one or the other.

What is your process when getting started with a new manuscript? 

I am dyslexic and so it takes a while for me to get through the simplest of stories. I read them to myself and then I have my husband or daughter or someone read it out loud to me so I can picture it in my head. Hearing it read out loud is super important for me. It helps me to grasp the story and the characters or character in the story and what the story feels like.

That’s amazing, and wonderful that your family helps! I like to hear my words aloud by others too, to get a sense of flow.

So once you get the go-ahead from the art director what is your final process?

Every time I start a picture book or middle grade reader, it's like doing it over the first time every single time for me. Some illustrators don't have that situation. I do.  I have been at this for years now and still it's like the very first time every single time LOL!

I usually take a week to just think of how I want to approach the book. During that week, I start to birth the characters. I look through magazines and photos. I visit Pinterest and look at children. I go to Barnes and Noble and watch the children. Collecting information and references all the while. I am a people watcher and this helps me greatly in my illustration work.

Then I starting working out the story and story boarding and doing some rough sketches and then they are sent to the publisher and then they will send them back in a few weeks and then there is usually a second round of sketches and then when approved I take it all to finish. Even after they are all finished and colored and collaged, there is still the process of looking them over and finding anything that isn't working or needs to be adjusted.

When everything has been fixed and adjusted it goes to print for proofing and then F&G's* are sent to me and the author to see what the first print looks like. Before you know it, a box of book are sitting at your doorstep. LOL!!

(Note for newbie’s to the industry-or oldies who don’t do acronyms: F&G means a folded and gathered or an unbound book. This gives those working on the book the first glimpse of what the finished product can be. This is the last chance to catch changes that need to be made before final printing.)

What is your favorite part of the process?

I am just starting to embrace and like the process of sketching, but my favorite part of all is actually creating the character and then creating the finishes! So I have two parts that I love.


As an author-only, I am so jealous of the creation of the character. I’m can’t wait to see what my characters look like ‘in person.’  What is the longest and shortest time you’ve worked on a manuscript?

3 months and 3-4 years.


Do you deal with any other people within the publishing house? If so, who? 

Sometimes when they are wanting to promote the book I will hear from a publicist for the publisher and they will tell me what they have in mind to move the book. Such as book festivals, book signings and other events.

Is there anything you wish authors knew that would make your job easier?

That illustration is a whole other ball of wax. Some illustrators don't like artist notes, but then there are some of us that do. I am one of those Illustrators that do. It's when they begin to interfere with the process that it becomes a problem. I have only had two of those situations. One was with a publisher and another with a self-published job. Nearly drove me crazy LOL! Mostly it's a process and sometimes it goes rather quickly and then sometimes it takes a whole lot longer.

Any advice for aspiring illustrators?

Hone your gift! Draw everything and every day. Try different art supplies. The ones that go together and the ones that don't. Be brave and break the rules and see what comes from it. You may surprise yourself and others too.  When building a portfolio only put the things that you are proud of in there. Don't put half done work in there when you are looking for work. They only want to see what puts a smile on your face and what you are most proud of.

When trying to get a job in children's pub please put children into your folio. Children, moving, dancing, bouncing, singing, being kind or being rambunctious! Create characters that speak to the audience. Give them personality by giving them names and places that they come from and remember there is never any competition unless you invite it in. Nobody can do what you do. Your style is your style and nobody can bring to the creative table what only you can bring so develop your style and then hone it.

What fuels your creative time? Chocolate, coffee, music?

Music, music and music. Oh my goodness I can't go a day without music. I listen to a lot of happy music as to why my illustrations are often happy ones. R and B, Hip Hop or conscious music, gospel, classical, meditative. It creates an atmosphere for me to work in. Music is like paint to me. I have different paints for different illustrations and the same goes for my music.

What wonderful advice and insights. Thank you again for coming out to the blog, Vanessa. I can’t wait to see what you draw up next.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Concept to Completion: Art Director Jim Hoover

Next on our journey following a picture book from concept to completion is the art director.



Joining us today is Jim Hoover with Viking Books. Jim, thank you so much for being willing to be a part of this series.  

Let’s start at the beginning. What happens when you get a call from, or have a meeting with, an editor?

I have worked with my team of editors for many years now, and I am proud to call them my coworkers, colleagues, and friends. So—often, a meeting isn’t so much ‘called’ as it sort of morphs from a casual conversation where we turn from shooting the breeze to “oh, you actually wanted to talk about work. Cool.”

Other times, someone shows up at your door with a stack of printouts or proofs, and it’s like “hey. What did we decide to do about this?”

“I dunno.”

“Okay, let’s figure it out.”

I truly think the world of my team and enjoy their company. We love our work, and it is completely collaborative. I always say that the fun and love we have for our books shows through in the final package.  We work hard, but most of the good days we barely notice.

And like any relationship, communication is key. If some snafu happens along the way during the process of a book it almost always boils down to miscommunication.


Above is a picture of me holding court with some of my coworker peeps. This is a picture from a very important meeting where we discussed the end of the last Game of Thrones season. I’m sure we did real work that day, too. To my right: Maggie Rosenthal (editorial assistant), Abigail Powers (copyeditor), Mariam Quraishi (design assistant), Amanda Mustafic (associate publicist), Krista Ahlberg (copyeditor), Nancy Brennan (associate art director), and Kate Renenr (senior designer.)

Sounds like a wonderful way to work. When working on a picture book do you communicate with the illustrator, the editor, or both?

With both. An art director’s job is to mediate comments from the editorial, sales and marketing teams to the illustrator and keep them on task and on time. We usually have a few ideas of our own, too.

What is your process when getting started with a new manuscript?

It actually still can surprise me after fifteen years how much the process can shift from one book to another. But GENERALLY, when I get a manuscript and need to find an illustrator, I have a few sources that I start with.

1.) I have a running list of illustrators that I have either always wanted to work with or am dying to work with again. Sometimes, it can take YEARS to find just the right (or another) book to work on. Patience is a virtue on all sides.

2.) I have a number of illustration agencies that I have worked with and trust. (I also have agents that I avoid like the plague.) I will go through their sites and (re)familiarize myself with their clients, and in many cases, reach out and ask for recommendations.

3.) I’ve usually found someone by this point, but every now and then, I’ll talk to other art directors and we will recommend folks to each other. Again, we also all have a running list of whom to avoid.

I’ll try to stay off the list of people to avoid. :-) Easy since I’m not an illustrator. What is your favorite part of the process?

Oooo, tough one. My favorite part of the process is probably when I get a few hours to sit with some good tunes on and just play with type and color. There is this wonderful ‘quiet before the storm’ moment when you are onto an idea for a cover or something when the whole thing is just YOURS to develop and work with, before anyone has weighed in on if it works, or needs to change, or just pulls the whole thing apart and sends you back to the drawing board.

I’ve lost days chasing an idea that I am pretty sure won’t make it past the first round of feedback, but I just want to let it breathe for a bit and enjoy it. Sometimes you can push through and really find something that’s special.

That sounds fantastic. I’m really seeing that every person on the path for a picture book is wildly creative. So when is your job finally ‘done’?

I guess when the book finally comes in from production as a finished, printed, bound object—that book is done. Otherwise, I am Sisyphus pushing that big ol’ boulder up the hill.

I think it’s like that at every phase. There is always ‘one more thing’ we can do, or tweak, or change. Now my favorite question; what is the longest and shortest time you’ve worked on a manuscript?

This really varies in an old skool hardcover imprint like Viking. We seldom push something through too fast. I would say the shortest has been five or six months.  On the flipside of that, I have one project that I have been working on for three years and it’s STILL not done. I know editors closing in on FIVE YEARS with some manuscripts. Some books just need more room to develop and grow than others. One of my favorite author/illustrators once lamented that she wishes she could do one picture book a year, and it usually takes her a year and a half, and occasionally two. But her books are perfect and beautiful. I am a quality over quantity sort of guy.

Six month to 5 years. That's a pretty big range. Publishing = Patience.
Do you deal with any other people within the publishing house? If so, who?

Publishing is a team effort. We work with marketing, sales, publicity, upper management, sales reps out in the field, authors, estates, stock houses, foundations, sometimes even spouses. It takes a village to raise a child and a House to make a book.

It takes a village to raise a child and a House to make a book.


Best. Line. EVER.

Every author needs to know, are illustration notes evil? This is something we hear conflicting info on.

Here’s what authors need to know about working with illustrators on a picture book. Once an illustrator has been assigned, you both become COAUTHORS. They are going to bring something to the table that you could not have counted on. Illustrators turn word documents into living, breathing things.

So, as you write, breaking a story down by spread is a great idea (I do know some art directors and editors that disagree with me here) but breaking down a manuscript by spread allows you to control the pacing of a story. There are some broad illustration notes that may be necessary, but beyond these two things, it really is best to keep illustration notes down to a minimum. This is not something that should be micromanaged, and it could even work against you in finding an editor.

Is there anything you wish authors knew that would make your job easier?

The biggest frustration is when an author doesn’t understand that once a publisher is signed up, their book is no longer their own thing existing in a vacuum. We have teams of people with decades of experience and direct knowledge of what will do well out in the market and what won’t. Have faith in the team that has faith in your book.

Have faith in the team that has faith in your book.

No I in team. Check.

Is there anything you wish illustrators knew that would make your job easier?

Deadlines are SO important. There is always a few days or even a week or two grace period, but some illustrators will blow deadlines by MONTHS. Understand that you are shooting yourself and the book in the foot the further away you get from an agreed-upon deadline.

*Double checks calendar to see if I’m late for anything.*  No, I’m safe for now. What fuels your creative time? Chocolate, coffee, music?

Are you a mind reader? :o) This is the holy trinity of my creative fuel. Sometimes I get caught dancing in my chair while making boring corrections to a novel interior, and I keep a chocolate stash in my top drawer, but shhh! Don’t tell anyone! 

Shh. Don’t blow my mind reading secret.  And thank you for that image. Now I’m going to imagine everyone chair dancing as they work on their books. :-P

Thank you again Jim for sharing your part in the publishing journey. Thank you for what you do! And P.S. I’m totally snagging some chocolate if I ever come visit your office.

For you readers who want to know more about Viking follow them on Twitter at:

Or find them on the web at:

Friday, September 2, 2016

Concept to Completion: Editor

Since this is a holiday weekend we are posting a little early. Have a great Labor Day!

This series of Concept to Completion started during a Skype session with Editor Kelly Delaney. I took a class with her and invested in the one-on-one session. (SO WORTH IT.) I asked just how many hands are on a picture book from writing to reader.  You know what I found out? WAY MORE THAN I IMAGINED.

Today I’m happy to introduce Kelly Delaney, Associate Editor at Alfred A. Knopf Booksfor Young Readers.

Thank you for coming out today, Kelly. So we all want to know, what exactly does an editor do for picture book manuscripts?

Editors work with authors to make the text as clear, concise, and engaging as possible. We also work with the design department to select an illustrator and, with the book’s designer, act as the go-between with the illustrator and author as the sketches and final art are developed.

After the text and illustrations are on their way, we present the book to the rest of the company—sales, marketing, publicity, subrights, etc.—and work with them to make sure the book finds its way into the hands of readers who will treasure it. There are a million little details in between, but that’s the gist of it!

That’s a lot of people you have to deal with! What happens when you fall in love with a picture book manuscript?

Usually I take the manuscript to an editorial meeting to solicit feedback from colleagues about its quality and, more importantly, its marketability (just because I love something doesn’t mean it will sell). If we’re in agreement that it’s worth acquiring, I fill out a form and a spreadsheet detailing how much I think it will sell and why, based on its sales hooks and comparative titles. I use those details to craft an offer, and present it to the book’s agent.

Do you ever have to fight for a story you love?

Yes. Sadly, not everything with great writing is marketable, and publishing is a business. I’ve often gone back to an author and asked them if they’d be willing to revise based on my editorial feedback in an attempt to bring it to where it needs to be. Sometimes this leads to an acquisition, but often I do just need to let a book go. That’s never easy, but in that situation I’ll usually tell the author (or agent, more likely) that I’d love to see more work from them in the future.

How long do you edit a picture book or, a better question may be, what were the shortest and longest periods of time you spent editing a picture book?

I’m working on a book now that is ready for copyediting a week after I signed it up! The edits were very spare and didn’t require any major restructuring. Other books can take much longer, depending on what needs to be addressed or on the author’s schedule—they may have other projects that take priority, which we’ll factor into the book’s schedule. And of course, more edits may come with the art. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few months, but I’ve never worked on a book that didn’t need any editing at all.


I’ve never worked on a book that didn’t need any editing at all.


That is a great thing to keep in mind. There is always room for improvement. Is there a separate copy editor in your house or do you do the copy editing after the big picture changes are made?

We have a copyediting team that looks at every book several times.

A team?! Wow. Is editing a 9-5 gig or do you find yourself doing editorial work at home?

I read at home a lot. It’s easier to get it done away from email, a busy office, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever brought a picture book home with me, though—just novels.

How much caffeine/sugar/health food of choice is needed to fuel you through your workday?

 I don’t really track my diet in this way, but I usually have an iced coffee in the morning and eat as balanced as I can (though an abundance of treats and snacks in the office seems to be an occupational hazard of working in children’s publishing). My energy is more impacted by how active I am, so I try to work out daily and/or walk to and from work. 

Something we should all try to work into our day. My hair looks like Wally's when I'm done a work out. And you can feel free to share the chocolate in your office. Just sayin'.

So is there anything else you think authors should know?

Remember that revision is a part of the process that doesn’t end when your manuscript is acquired—and that an editor wouldn’t work to revise something with you if they didn’t love it. It’s not an attack on your work, but an attempt to make it as strong as possible so that it will appeal to as many readers as possible. We all have the same goal, which is to get your book into the hands of as many readers as we can!

Also, I’ve talked to a lot of writers who worry about details like how to format a manuscript submission, how art notes should look, and things like that. That should not be a source of stress for you. Be organized and clear, and follow any submission guidelines that exist. The more important part is to focus on your writing and hone your craft. If I love a manuscript, an unnecessary art note is not going to change that.

You heard it here authors and illustrators: Editors are on our team and want the same things for our books as we do.

Thank you so much Kelly for taking time to share your job with us. It’s great to peek behind the curtain and see just how much work, and how many people work, to get a picture book out into the world.

Next time...Art Director