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How to work with an illustrator

I want to publish an illustrated book but get overwhelmed with the details


Cary Tennis
February 15, 2013 6:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I want to write a book with a comedic slant about my experiences with a very difficult life situation.  I want my experiences to be conveyed at least partly in the form of a comic strip.  

The problem is, I can't draw.  My stick figures are even bad.  So I've been stuck for a long time on how to go about finding an illustrator, how much to pay, should there be a contract and what would that look like, etc.  Then there is the problem of formatting the book, which I suppose is tricky if it is illustrated.  Black-and-white or color?  And should it be a printed book, and if so, how to go about publishing a printed book nowadays?  Or should it be an e-book, and how does that work?  

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This project is so important to me that it feels like something that I not only want to do, but have to do.  But I'm bogged down with all the procedural and detail stuff. The more I research and learn, the more overwhelmed I feel, and then I just shut down.

I would be very appreciative if you could help me!

Looking for an Illustrator

Dear Looking,

Let's start with the fact that the more research you do the more overwhelmed you get and then you just shut down. That is a great description. It is so concise. That's exactly what happens. It happens to many of us.

Shutting down is OK.

Feelings of overwhelm can be managed. I'm not a neurologist or brain scientist, but it seems to me that in order to manage feelings of overwhelm we can assume that they are simply the brain's way of signaling that it has too much to process and that we have to slow down. So fine. Slow down. Give the brain more time to process. Filter out some of the signals you are sending to the brain. No problem. Take a break. Have a snack, take a nap, schedule the next work session and walk away. No problem.

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The question is, after an episode of overwhelm, how do we keep going and not give up? The overwhelm may be associated with a feeling of panic. What is your "overwhelm" like? Is it like panic? Is it like hopelessness? Does it feel like exhaustion?

If we have feelings of overwhelm consistently, and we begin to have automatic thoughts telling us that the project is hopeless, then we may succumb to depression. Or we may make the wrong decision about the project. We may think we are making an objective decision when we are actually responding to subvocal messages of hopelessness.

Creative work takes self-management. We must allow ourselves to have unusual reactions, but we must also recover from them. Often our reactions will be extreme. That is OK. We must learn not to stifle, but to experience and yet contain these extreme emotions.

So when you feel overwhelm, take a break if you need to. Note in writing where you were when you stopped, what you need to do when you resume, and then rest so you can return to the task, refreshed and hopeful.

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The brain is what we use to think with, so it's just about the smartest part of the body. When it tells you it's time to shut down, then it's time to shut down.

Obey your brain.

Your brain is amazing. It will come through for you. Just show it some respect.

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One possibility, too, is that your search for an illustrator may contain something in it of the wish to be rescued. I would like to explore this possibility more in future work, but the basic idea is that in our attempts to do creative work we sometimes regress to a childlike state. Our martyr archetype may be calling out helplessly for rescue. We may have some childlike longing for instant praise and success. In such a state, while searching for a collaborator or for an agent, we may fantasize that the collaborator or agent will have magical powers. We don't know we're thinking this, because it is unconscious. But our innocent zeal has something in it of the damsel in distress. Oh, please help me, great and powerful literary agent! Oh great book illustrator, please divine for me the images that are already in my head that you can't possibly know about because I haven't told you what they are yet!

When this happens, we must somehow come to our own rescue. We must call upon the more experienced and sober part of ourselves to protect the innocent and reject the martyr and say, we're going to be OK, but we're going to be in this for the long haul.

As you search for an illustrator, you want to have sketches of what you need, so you can show the illustrator your story. I suggest making comic strip panels and using stick figures at first, with dialogue bubbles. You might find, as you do this, that it actually helps in the telling of the story. That is, rather than being a preparatory, outliney-type activity, it may turn out to be some of the primary creative work you do.

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NPR commentator Brooke Gladstone collaborated with illustrator Josh Neufeld to produce the book "The Influencing Machine."  As she says  in this video, she quickly learned that she was going to have to think visually in order to work with an illustrator: "He said, 'No, you don't understand: You have to think of the pictures,'" she says. She also mentions reading "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art" in preparing to work in this collaborative genre.

So I think you need to envision the panels. Start making the comics with only stick figures. I have found that drawing little comics in panels with stick figures releases a surprising amount of creative energy. The few times I have drawn comics, just for the experience, or to encapsulate some family problem in therapy, I've found it amazing and very fun!

So try that. If you can indicate what the panels are and who is in them, then you can communicate that to an illustrator.

This is similar to what my wife is always telling me about graphic design: "Give me the text," she  says. "Don't just talk to me about your ideas."

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Speaking of text and illustrations and books, if you are in the San Francisco area this weekend, our city is hosting the world's largest antiquarian book fair. If you  go to the Antiquarian Book Fair website and "search by specialty" for "illustrated books," you will find an amazing selection of collectors and unusual books. If you can make it to the fair, give yourself a treat. Go.

Now, if you start looking at all this stuff, it might just lead to more overwhelm. But remember: Overwhelm is just too much going into the grinder too fast. Just slow down the grinder.

Don't jam the grinder.

In thinking about grinders, I did a Google image search and somehow ended up at Sobriquet magazine.

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That's one of the dangers of the Web I know. But then, if writing the book begins to seem too complicated, just refer to this chart. (I should have used this chart in Tuesday's column about the importance of having a big idea for a novel!)

Seriously, if you start looking at illustrated books, you will spend hours. I just got lost looking at the William Blake offerings at the John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller here on Geary Boulevard. And if you like Beat stuff, you could just be looking forever at the ephemera: You truly could get lost looking at books such as "The Discovery of Love, A Psychedelic Experience With LSD" by Humphrey Osmond, who, if you read Don Lattin's "The Harvard Psychedelic Club,"you will learn was the man who came up with the term "psychedelic."

Anyway, the point is, the brain is a tool. Use it in accordance with manufacturer specifications and things will go more smoothly. Learn to filter. Learn to slow down and be more thorough. Don't overwhelm yourself. Be selective. Filter. Go slow. It will happen.

So, it's weird, because I give advice about writing novels but I am not a published novelist, and now I am giving advice about writing comics or illustrated books but I am not an illustrated book writer. Why?

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What I do know about is persisting through the storm. What I do know about is managing the chaos of the imagination and the powerful emotions that arise when we attempt to give shape to images and archetypes that arise from the unconscious.

Also, I have gone through the process of figuring out how to write, design, print, distribute and sell a book and so I can relate when you say that the various practical problems seem overwhelming. It is possible to break it down into pieces, however. When we published our first book in 2007, we read and followed the advice in Dan Poynter's "Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book."

Some of the suggestions turned out to be not relevant to us, such as his insistence that the first thing you do is get a post office box. But we went along with it. Much was  useful, in fact essential.

As far as your agreement with an illustrator goes, you could use a form such as the one found in the book "Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers."

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Or you might want to use something from "Business and Legal Forms for Illustrators."

To be honest, I have found such books useful, but in the most recent book contract, we just decided to do a simple memorandum of understanding, because there was a lot of trust and good will in the relationship. We know we're going to get it done, and we accept each other's limitations.

Getting an ISBN number and getting reviews and all that, signing up with Amazon, approaching a distributor, all these things are doable and can be learned about.

But the chief question is, How will you sustain yourself psychologically and stay on track to finish? I really believe the main trait that separates people who actually finish their projects from people who just keep talking about doing it but don't end up doing it is that the people who actually finish stuff seek help, learn to manage their own emotional lives, and work in community.

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Cary Tennis

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