Doodles, Dilemmas and Deadlines

Toot toot! All aboard the Transpennine Express from Leeds to Manchester!

On Saturday 2nd April I was invited to run an event with the North West branch of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I’m a SCBWI member and regular at the North East group. I love that SCBWI is there for unpublished and published authors and illustrators, and that so many members have been published as a result of learning, exposure and contacts made through SCBWI events.

The aim of the day was to explore an illustrator’s creative journey. I like an alliterative title so called the day Doodles, Dilemmas and Disasters Deadlines.

NOTE: Disasters do frequently happen when making books, like bottomless plot holes, or being gripped by The Fear that at any moment you might be exposed as a total fraud who can’t draw/write/string a sentence together, or when a book you thought was totally going to happen, doesn’t happen. But I didn’t end up having the word DISASTER in the title as I thought it might not sound very uplifting and positive, and that I might get carried away talking about all the disaster situations from my own career. BUT I do think it’s important to say that stuff going wrong, or feeling like it’s going wrong, is very normal. And it’s all a useful learning curve. More on that in a bit.

The day at the splendidly grand Manchester Central Library (a definite writing location to remember for the future) went something like this:


An an idea for a book can start small and might turn into something you never imagined it would. Take Mariella Mystery for instance. She started off life as a doodle before becoming a front cover concept. My original plan for her was to send the cover out as an illustration sample. I thought of myself as more of an illustrator at the time so I never considered that I would be asked to actually write the Ghostly Guinea Pig, let alone eight books about Mariella! At the time, I’d hoped to be commissioned to illustrate a similar sort of book written by another author.


Fast forward on from initial doodles, to getting an agent (who convinced me I could definitely write Mariella and put myself forward as an author/illustrator), to getting an eight book publishing deal and I’m quite glad that I didn’t let that first doodle of Mariella gather dust in the back of a sketch book. (I nearly did, and that would have been a story to add to my list of DISASTERS.

Mariella-Mystery_Ghostly_Guinea_Pig_High-ResDon’t disregard your doodles. They were done when you tapped into a subconscious part of your brain where all the ideas you’ll ever need are hidden away. See where a doodle takes you.


When I’m starting a project I find everything feels sprawling and it takes lots of fumbling around in the dark trying different things and refining ideas with editors and designers until the shape of a book begins to emerge.

Something I’ve found useful is a way of looking at picture book texts described in an interview on the always inspiring Booksniffers blog with Benji Davies:

Benji talks about how when he begins a project he looks at the ‘beats’ of a text. This, I’ve learned, is a term used in animation. A beat is a moment of emotional change in the story, how the illustrations show this is what makes the book have that oooooh! or ahhhh! or HA HA! feeling for readers.

To see what tricks different illustrators use to show ‘the beats’ everyone brought along a favourite picture book. A stand out was I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klasson.

I’m still laughing about the page when the bear figures out what happened to his hat. That’s the sign of a beautifully executed ‘beat’. (If only it was as easy as some illustrators make it look to find that perfect beat!)

Maybe I should have called the day Doodles Dilemmas, Disasters and Deadlines, and Extreme Jealously at the Amazingness of Other Illustrator’s Work? Not quite as catchy?


This section wasn’t all about deadlines, it was about good working habits. But Doodles, Dilemmas and Things You Really Should Do To Keep your Creative Flame Burning was a bit of a mouthful. (Deadlines featured quite high on my list of things I really should be better at managing so for alliterative purposes it was used as a title.)

TOP FIVE list of things that will help the journey of making a book:

  1. IDEAS! Having one amazing gem of an idea is obviously a very important step in getting work published. BUT don’t forget to always think about your next work of genius, finishing a project and realising you have nothing else on the backburner leads to feelings of DISASTER. What if I have no more ideas? Oh god, I need to think of an idea so I can’t, etc.Also, publishers really like you if you have one sparkling idea, but they’ll LOVE it (and who knows, offer you lots of publishing contracts) if they can see you are somebody who is prepared with LOTS of sparkling ideas.
  2. DEADLINES! Having a SERIOUS deadline makes you do stuff, by serious I mean one that can’t be moved, such as submitting work for a competition. NOTE: I need a deadline to make me do anything, and I don’t mean one that I’ve set myself. That never works as I am a lenient sort of boss who will let me off for slacking. No, I need a proper deadline from somebody who will tut and make me feel bad for not doing it.
  3. Be Playful: When in the midst of the million and three jobs that need doing and deadlines for existing projects it’s easy to feel like you have no brain space left for anything else. But the best ideas come when your brain is used to being playful and seeing the unusual in the usual. Find the time, or make the time to look up and notice the inspiration that is around you. It can be for two minutes or ten, but doing it everyday helps MASSIVELY. NOTE: Picasso said “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” (EG: Not thinking, tomorrow I will find time to think a bit more creatively, if I have time.)
  4. DO something with your ideas: It’s all very well being playful and noticing everything but don’t just gather stuff in sketchbooks and leave it there. Do something with it. Develop it, push it around a bit, prod it. Perform brain surgery on it. Could it be the next bestseller?
  5. Ruminate: Hooray! This allows us to go for walks/sit on the sofa eating biscuits/lie in without guilt or fear because leaving time to mull things over and solve problems makes your ideas loads better. Make sure it is ruminating time though, not just putting it all off until tomorrow time. NOTE: See point 2 about DEADLINES. If you’ve left everything until the last minute you won’t have ruminated anything and that will show in your work. (This can fall into previously deleted DISASTERS section.