Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.41: Picture Books are Books Too, with Special Guest Seth Fishman

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, with special guest Seth Fishman

Seth Fishman, author of seven picture books (as well as lots of longer-form stuff), joins us to talk about writing picture books, including some of the business and publication aspects.

No-Context Pull Quote: “Your art is so bad we’re going to hire someone to draw badly for you.”

Credits: This episode was recorded live by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Explore the picture book area in your local bookstore. See how it’s laid out, and have a look at some classic picture books. Then write a 500-word SF/F picture book.

Thing of the week: BAD DRAWER, by Seth Fishman (and friends), illustrated by Jessixa Bagley , Armand Baltazar, Anna Bond, Travis Foster), Jessica Hische, Tillie Walden, and Ethan Young, (with a pair of trees drawn by the author).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Picture books are short! 500 words or less. Write a whole draft in one sitting. Submit with illustrations or not? If you have a really good artist, yes. It builds enthusiasm. Expect to go back and forth with the illustrator. Start with an outline and then make the words pretty. Page turns and spreads are important. Let the illustrator bring visual language and ideas to the project, too.

[Season 17, Episode 41]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Picture Books are Books, Too, with Special Guest Seth Fishman.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] And we have our special guest.

[Seth] Hi. I’m Seth Fishman. I am the author of seven picture books, some nonfiction and some fiction. And I am excited to be here.

[Mary Robinette] I am very happy that you’re here with us.

[Mary Robinette] So, a couple of us on the podcast have written picture books or are in the process or have experimented with them. But you have gone… You’ve written a lot more than that. I also know that you write longform as well. What are some of the things that you think about when you are approaching a picture book?

[Seth] Well, that’s a great question. I think a lot of people think that picture books are harder than they are. I don’t think you hear that kind of sort of note very often. I think picture books are easier simply because of their length. I mean, I think of Nanowrimo, we could write 100 picture books in that period of time with that many words, with that much word count, probably way less. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to be the best. But what I love about picture books and the differences is that you can write the whole draft in one sitting. If you’re in a good mood. That is something that allows you to throw things out much more, to experience and experiment much more. In fact, that has actually messed up my writing longform because I get so impatient now when I sit and start writing. The first bump I hit, I’m like, “Um. Ah. You need to take a break.”


[Seth] So it’s a much different experience.

[Mary Robinette] I also know that you do… That you’ve done like nonfiction picture books, which require a ridiculous amount of research. Is that still writing a book in one go?

[Seth] Yeah, that’s a different good question. You do, you can still get them rolled in there. My first book, A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, or my first picture book, rather. I had the whole arc of the story came to me as soon as I had the title. I just asked the question, how many stars are there, and the answer was so beautiful, and I was thinking about my son. I was able to sort of have the outline… Basically the outline was the book. Then you just make the story prettier. Right? The words prettier. So that did work out. But then I had to go backwards and do the science behind it. The three others I did? That was much harder. But by then I had the rhythm of what I wanted to do. Because it was a series. When you write a certain set of series, and people are expecting a certain thing, you’ll find, especially in picture books, there’s a lot of very familiar tropes. Once you find your own rhythm, it’s… It just sort of is about matching that. So I knew what I had to do in the beginning, the middle, and the end. But I didn’t know what the special talents of the sperm whale was, which is that it can deflate its lungs to go really, really deep. You learn that stuff, ocean books, etc. so it’s… Yeah.

[Howard] So, seven picture books. How many of these have you personally illustrated? How did finding illustrators work? Because that’s… In our experience with Sandra and I and our picture books, that’s a horse of several different colors.

[Seth] Yeah, that’s a really great question. This is where I have to reveal for those that don’t know that I am also a literary agent. So I do have some privilege, I suppose is the term, in that I know a lot of illustrators. I get this question quite a bit is should I submit with illustrations or should I not. My belief is quite firmly that you should, but only if (a) the artist is really good, and (b) there’s a value add of the artist. That is not an easy thing to find. Certainly not to just hire someone, pay them money to be able to do. So the bonus that I had is that my first illustrator, Isabelle Greenberg, oddly… Well, she lives in the UK and she was my former client. Her primary agent in the UK went to [Double you me?]. They don’t like American agents to not be at [Double you me?] as well. So I couldn’t work with her. I said, “Okay. Well, when you come back to me, I’m excited about it, because they don’t know how to do graphic novels. But until then, what about we work on this project together?” So I knew her, she was a best-selling graphic novelist. She had never done a picture book though, and I had her. The reason why I want that to happen… I believe it to happen is the best, is because when you submit a book with both together and there is a value add, some people will pass on the art and some people will pass on the writing. But when they see them both together, like them both, the enthusiasm is much greater than it would be for just the script. That said, traditionally, you still… Most people submit just the writing and then the agent takes you on and can either pair up with you, you can have… I had a stable of authors that I can pair with clients of mine or you can have the publishers do that. That is… There are some real advantages to that. You could have…

[Brandon] That’s how we did it.

[Seth] Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah.

[Brandon] Is I submitted a text, said, “Hey, do you guys want this book?” We took it out on submission. We ended up at a publisher. Then counted on them… Because I wanted to learn this process. Right? I had never done a picture book. They came to me with eight illustrators that they wanted to ask. They hadn’t asked them yet. They said, “Which of these fits best for you?” I picked one that I knew and was quite a big fan of. They approached this individual, which I can’t announce yet, who said, “Yes.” But it was kind of fun for me because each of these illustrators would have interpreted the story differently. It really helped me kind of get a feel for how do I want this story interpreted before we even went to the illustrators.

[Seth] Have you been able to interact with that illustrator?

[Brandon] Yep. Yes. So the illustrator sent sketches, and we went back and forth on some ideas for the sketches which are changing the story in interesting ways. Now they’re working on going beyond that.

[Seth] Can I follow-up? Sorry, really quickly. Have you been emailing directly with that illustrator?

[Brandon] Ooo. No, I have not. I’m aware that this is going to be something we need to push for. It’s no… So I don’t know what everybody else’s experience has been, but art directors at publishers tend to be very protective of their artists. They do not want some author coming in and ham-fistedly saying, “B…b…b…b..b…” We’ve had to work overtime at my other publishers to get them used to the idea that it’s okay for Brandon to talk to the illustrator. Yeah.

[Howard] When Sandra wrote her Hold Onto Your Horses picture book, we submitted it and there wasn’t a whole lot of interest. We decided to self publish, because we were already set up for that because of Schlock Mercenary. But we knew that I was the wrong artist. Absolutely the wrong artist. We auditioned artists. There were many, many, many very talented artists who submitted things and they knew how a horse looked. But the artist we chose drew pictures that told us how a horse felt. It’s difficult to describe how wonderful that is. But when you land on the right artist, suddenly you become very protective of them. You want that relationship to just last forever because it’s so beautiful.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I was an art major in college and technically could do my own illustrations. I’ve been an art director and would not illustrate my own books. Because it’s a specific and special skill set. For people who don’t know, Seth is also my agent. So when we sent it out, we did not send it out with an artist attached.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to go ahead and pause us for our book of the week. Which is Seth’s.

[Seth] Yes. Hello. The book of the week is my forthcoming book, Bad Drawer. That actually is based on the accumulation of me sort of being jealous of the writer illustrators, which sort of bypasses that problem and allows you to do so many cool other things. So I pitched this book where there was a young kid whose… Who has an idea and is not a great drawer. You can argue about what’s good or bad, but the idea is that they can’t get across what’s in their mind on the page. But some of their friends can do this and this and this and this, and they can work together to help illustrate that project. But I was supposed to illustrate it, and my illustrations really bad. They did pay me for it, and then they said, “Well, you’re not…”


[Seth] “You’re actually so bad that we’re going to hire someone to draw badly for you.” I was actually quite devastated to be quite honest. But I did demand to have two trees in the final spread. So that’s a pretty fun bonus. So I illustrated two trees in there. Ah…


[Seth] But there’s a lot of great illustrators like Tillie Walden’s in there, Armand Baltazar, Anna Bond, Jessica Hische, there’s six illustrators that are in there with me so it’s really fun.

[Mary Robinette] All right. So. Thank you. I am excited about this book personally.

[Mary Robinette] But I’m also wanting to know, since we… I am the only person on the podcast without children. When you are the reader for a picture book, what are some of the things that make you pick it up and go, “Ah, this book. This book is good.”

[Brandon] I let my kids do it. Just turn them loose and say, “What do you want?” Now, they’re very cover and title influenced, as one might imagine. But I’ve noticed that the ones my kids like the most are the ones that their teachers have read to them. Which is very common for that age group. We’ll go to the store and they’ll be like, “This one! I love this one.” I’m like, “How do you know this one?” “We read it in school.” “And this one! I love this one.” They read it in school. But I let them steer. I’m curious what they’re interested in.

[Dan] The thing that makes me love a picture book goes back to what Seth said in the beginning, that you start with an outline and then your job is just to make it pretty. Make the words just really pretty. So, for me, it is clever turns of phrase. Often that comes in the form of some kind of repetitive structure. But just poetic simplicity of language. I have never written a line as good as “Good night, nobody. Good night, mush.” From Good Night Moon. That’s a perfect line. I love reading that book to my kids because I get to that point and I’m like, “Oh, this is my favorite line.” So something like that just impresses me with the economy and beauty of the language itself.

[Brandon] One thing we should talk about, since it is a writing podcast, is picture books have a very different format from writing others. This is one of the things I had to beef up on before I wrote it, because a lot of picture books are 40 pages. There are some formats that are a little shorter, a little longer. But basically, when you’re writing a picture book, unlike when I’m writing most of my other things, you are considering each page turn. That’s a vital bit of important narrative that you’re using, and you’re considering are they spreads or are they not. Where are the words going? Howard’s smiling because, yeah, this is…

[Howard] I was just going to ask, when I’ve written things for comics, I wrote a short story for David Kellett’s Drive comic. Story’s called History and Haberdashery. I had to ask him several times to make absolutely clear I knew the answer what page does this begin on, what page does this end on. I need to know where the spreads are and I need to know where the page turns are. Because in comics, you write to the page turn. In many cases, the person writing the script for the comic is doing preliminary art direction, where they are describing where the reveal is, so on and so forth. My question is how much of what I already know about writing graphic novels, writing comics, how much of that applies to writing picture books?

[Seth] That’s a great question. I think it does quite a bit. I would actually venture to say that most picture books are 32 pages.

[Brandon] They really are.

[Seth] Some play to 40.

[Brandon] Yeah. I squeezed to 40 because I’m an epic fantasy writer.


[Seth] Right. So they’re 32. Then they’re actually 28, because there are a number of other pages. You have your copyright page and whatnot. If you are an author illustrator, you can, like Mo Williams with Pigeons Drive the Bus, it actually starts in the endpapers. He sort of starts creating the story early. It’s sort of cheating. But being able to look at the dummy of a book is incredibly important. I think you should just type into Google, “picture book dummy,” and you’ll be able to see the 32 pages spread in there, and you’ll be able to write literally onto that. It’s so curious to see how you’d be able to do that if you’re just a normal fiction writer, how that affects you. But to be a comic book writer, the stage directions is helpful. Obviously you want your artist to experience it the way that they want, right? But there’s some things that you have to say because it’s part of the plot or a move you really needed to get across. I think it’s incredibly important to do that. It seems like a translation is really good.

[Seth] Mary Robinette, I was very curious, though, because you write SF and then you wrote an SF picture book and the interplay with the artist was a little bit different. I was very fascinated watching not back and forth. Your notes were different. I was curious to know how you were feeling when you were seeing these notes pop up in terms of both the art, but then also the science behind what you were doing.

[Mary Robinette] Right. So one of the things that I have kind of as a brand at this point is that my stuff will be accurate. Picture books are supposed to be beautiful and stylized. So what I wanted was instead of stylizing off of an imaginary rocket, I wanted her to stylize off of an actual rocket. So I would send over notes like “Here are some rocket ships to look at.” On the moon, the initial… The roughs that I got back were wooden crates. I’m like, “Well, this is what things would actually be packed in.” She had a picture for pouring water, and I sent over juice packs. It was really great. But I didn’t have a direct back and forth with my illustrator. But my editor was so good at passing that information on, and having the conversations with the illustrator. But then the illustrator also came back with ideas. Like, there’s a pair of red buttons that float through in every single thing. We… Things don’t just float float on the moon. There is gravity. But we had the conversation of “Well, it would probably way about as much as a feather, so it is realistic to assume that it might be kicked up at any given moment.” She had this idea that these buttons would float all the way through and then be incorporated into the final image as kind of this beautiful emotional touchstone that was not at all anywhere in my ideas. So it was… I subscribe to the Jim Henson model of success which is that you hire someone who is better than you and let them do their job. That, for me, is a prime example of the visual language that she could bring to it. I brought the science. Like, okay, this is what an actual rocket looks like. I think she did just like a wonderful job with that.

[Howard] In late 2017, I got to illustrate a Munchkin deck for Steve Jackson Games for Munchkin Starfinder. One of the most challenging things was coming up with a syntax for taking the Paizo Starfinder spaceships on model and caricaturing a spaceship on a card so it looks silly. I know how to caricature a person because I know what pieces get exaggerated and what pieces get shrunk. But what are those pieces on a spaceship? The answer is I couldn’t actually tell you without going back and looking at the cards and remembering what I did.

[Mary Robinette] Well, this has been a lovely conversation. I would love to give our listeners some homework.

[Seth] Yes. Well, because picture books are sort of so new to a number of the listeners, this is a little double part homework. First is to go to your local bookstore and just explore the picture book section. See how they are stacked, how they are promoted, and how it’s different from a section you normally hang out in. Then, second of all, I encourage you to try and write one. 500 words or less. It’s very simple. See how it feels. Try not to do rhyme. That’s the other part of it. Just try that in the SF or the fantasy category. There’s not enough of them. I would highly encourage writing that to fill that space.

[Mary Robinette] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.