My Writing and Illustrating Process

Hi folks! I'd like to thank Jo for letting me guest post about my children's book, Frank the Gentle Viking. This post is especially for all you sadomasochists out there who think you'd like to write and illustrate your own children's book. I'm here to warn you it is SO MUCH MORE THAN TWICE THE WORK! Not to mention twice the pressure! If you're submitting to a publisher with both the story and the pictures, that's giving them two potential reasons to reject your work instead of just one. I recommend being totally, brutally honest with yourself. Ask "Am I writing and illustrating because I have the skills, passion and dedication to create a unique, professional quality book?" or "Am I just doing it because I want creative control?" You'll save yourself some heartache if you can decide "Maybe I'll just be awesome at one thing."

But hey, sometimes experience is itself the best teacher. If you want to try your hand at both writing and illustrating, even just to learn about the process, go for it. For those of you who want to join me in the attempt to climb to mountains at once, here's how I went about it when attempting my first book. I have since taken classes and read a lot and learned some more, so I'll also try to make notes on what I'll probably do next time to try and make it even better. 

1) Get the idea. - I recommend starting at a library. Read All the Things! Including the people. The story of Frank was inspired by a small child I saw in the library asleep in a stroller and wearing a surgical helmet. I thought "Aw, if that were my child, I'd give his helmet some cool horns so he wouldn't have to feel bad about wearing it." And thus the idea for a story about a baby Viking was born.

2) Write. Revise. Repeat. - Work your draft till you think it's awesome. Let someone else read it. Make changes. Then hide it from yourself for a week, a month, or six months, and then read it again to see if you like it as much as you did.

3) Character Design - Some characters walk into your head fully formed and it's just a trick to get them down on paper. Some characters have to have lots of variations of them drawn. Everything about the way you draw a character will say something about their personality. It will also help you get an idea of the feel and style of the rest of the book. I'll probably spend more time in this phase next time. Even though I had a good idea of what each character should look like, I still should probably do more practice sketches of them to better understand how they would behave, how they compare to each other in size and shape. But also to give my hands the muscle memory to be able to draw each character consistently.

4)Thumb nails - Thumb nails are the small scaled-down sketches of each page. Next time, I will do WAY MORE than I think I need. Like at least three pages of layout thumbnails per final piece. I think artists and writers get so caught up in what the final product will be that they try to jump to a final on the first leap. But would a pianist get up and play Rachmaninoff without having practiced? Of course not! In the future, I'm going to give myself way more time to practice my piece before leaping into color.

5) Grey scale comps - These are the black and white studies of what the final will look like. In terms of polish and detail, these are between the thumbnails and the final color piece. They're probably the same size as the final will be, but give you a chance to catch visual problems that you didn't see when it was small. Plus, for anyone wanting to submit a picture book dummy to a publisher, this is the stage that a publisher is interested in seeing. It shows that you basically know what you are doing, but are open to changes. It's much easier to change something at this stage, especially if you are doing the finals in traditional media like oils or watercolors. Again, I'll be spending WAY more time on this phase in the future. For Frank the Gentle Viking, I did full size drawings, but neglected to really shade them accurately, which made my life a lot harder later on. I was using a blend of watercolor and digital methods for the final, so changes weren't impossible, but they still took more time than it would have if I had taken the time to solve my problems beforehand. It's helpful to have your art buddies critique your work at this point, too. (It's funny how I was actually told all this in a general sense in college, but didn't understand the importance of actually DOING IT until I was attempting a real project.)

6) Final color work - Just what it sounds like.

7) Hide it for a while - Just like with your manuscript, it's good to get some distance and then look with fresh eyes. You may be pleased, or you may look at it and say "What the heck was I thinking!" I made one very rookie attempt at completing my book with hardly any preparation or development work, and then after  working my butt off for six weeks, stood back and realized it looked like total garbage. I put it away for a whole year before trying to bring it to life again. In the meantime, I took classes and looked and looked and looked at all different kinds of art to try and figure out what made good work great and what I could do to find my own artistic voice. When I dug it back out, I was ready for it.

8) THE BOOK - For those of you wanting to see your creative baby in real book form in your hands, the next step is publication. You can submit it to publishers or agents, or try and self publish it on your own. There are many different avenues within the realm of self-publishing. Some are free, some are expensive. Some will do the formatting for you. Some you have to do yourself. I had to do mine myself. Again, here's another step of the process where you have to think like a designer. Everything you just did for your manuscript and your illustrations you should do if you do your own formatting. Set the type in a digital program, like Illustrator or InDesign, and then have someone else look at it. You don't want to put so much work into writing and drawing only to have your baby delivered into the world sporting typos in comic sans. Never use Comic Sans. Never use Curlz. EVER. everrrrrrrrrr.

So that's pretty much it. Not something you can do in a weekend. And probably not something you'll make a gazillion dollars doing. But if your definition of success is busting your butt to make the most unique, beautiful story you possibly can, a story that nobody else in the world can tell exactly the way you could. Well, then it's a pretty darn rewarding endeavor.


  1. This is so well done - the blog post, I mean, informative and attractive. It certainly motivates to buy the book. The illustrations are captivating and somehow delicate, despite the subject!

    1. I agree. Lucy did a great job with this post. I love her final illustrations too. I've got a copy of the book and will be reviewing soon.


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