Saturday, 9 May 2009

'Do you draw the pictures yourself?'

If you have written an illustrated book of any kind – fiction, non-fiction, picture book, illustrated chapter book – it won’t be long before someone asks you if you draw the pictures yourself. Grrrr. The first time you can smile sweetly and say ‘no’. But after a short while, you find you’ve stockpiled so many barbed replies that NATO wants to inspect your armoury, and your smile becomes strained with the effort of concealing them. It is one of five questions you will be asked all the time once you start telling people you are a children’s writer. (We will revisit the other four later.)

1. So, are you going to be the next JK Rowling?
What do you think? Would I be talking to you if I were about to become a multi-gazillionaire recluse?

2. Where do you get your ideas from?
Waitrose; you can buy them loose or vacuum-packed, but the loose ones are best. Don’t get too many at once or they go off before you use them all.

3. I wonder if you’d just take a look at this story? My children really like it and my friends say I should publish it…
No, I won’t, because when I tell you your story sucks you will be very angry. And in the extremely unlikely case that your story doesn’t suck, you will want me to help you to find a publisher.

4. Have you thought of writing a book for adults?
Good grief, what an original idea! Are there adults who read? Why did I never think of that?

5. Do you draw the pictures yourself?
There are things I can draw very well: conclusions, short straws and inane questions, as you can see.

But of course you don't say any of these things (usually).

Why is the question so annoying? Because it suggests that writing is not enough, or not the hard bit. And most writers secretly struggle to suppress a feeling of inadequacy all the time, so when they are asked this they immediately feel guilty and caught out. Inside, you may be screaming 'Look at these fantastic pictures? Do you think I could do that? Of course I couldn't!' Hold it in. DON'T come over all humble and say you don’t have enough talent to illustrate the book. Bollocks. You have a very valuable talent — you can write. Writing and illustrating are different but equally valid and worthwhile skills.

There are a few talented individuals who do both but — listen carefully — most writers do not illustrate their own books, most illustrators do not write their own books. (Sometimes, people who do both are called authostrators and that is such a horrible word it is best to avoid having both talents in case it’s used against you.) I hold illustrators in hugely high regard and am in awe of their skill, and I love working with good illustrators. But I’m not one, don’t aspire to be one, and am NOT going to feel inadequate because I am not one. And nor should you.

Coming next... The right words, in the right order - working with editors


  1. As someone who illustrated for years before writing I once had the great pleasure of watching an author I much admired reading a book I had written and illustrated. She kept looking at the cover which did have my name on it.
    Eventually she said "but who wrote it, it's wonderful." Hey ho, works both ways!
    I started writing as well as colouring in because at the end of the day you get more money. But now I love writing.
    Still love painting but at the moment I could take or leave illustrating and am heartily fed up with publishers!

  2. "Have you ever thought of making a film of Stravaganza?" is one of my non-favourites, though it usually comes in an e-mail not face to face.

    Wow, what a revelation out of the blue! What a fantastic idea! And of course writers DO make movies, as we all know. Because we have all those gazillions of dollars lying about that we got from being "the next J K Rowling", don't we?

  3. Ginger Darlings, you are one of the illustrators I am in awe of :-) I'm sorry the publishers have been giving you a hard time. Mary, I'd forgotten that question - of course!

  4. Oh boy, just come across this. I get asked this all the time - and the movie one as well, in exactly in the same way as Mary does. And like Ginger Darlings (dying to know who this actually is!) I used to be an illustrator, so I also get a hard time from people about 'not drawing any more – such a shame!' Which I find REALLY insulting to my writing! I happen to get MORE creative fulfilment from the writing, since there are fewer limitations; I don't think it's a shame at all! Maddening. As for the ideas one, well, of course I grow mine in an egg as anyone who's seen my YouTube clip will know...

  5. I never know what people actually expect to get as an answer when they ask "Where do you get your ideas from?" It must be the most popular (adult) question.

    Top questions from kids are always "Are you rich?" and "Are you famous?" (Followed, because of the nature of some of my work, by "Have you met David Tennant?")