Writing Excuses 5.14: Visual Components of Novels with Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld joins Brandon and Howard for a discussion of the visual components of novels. His novel Leviathan is set in an alternate history 1914, and is designed to look like a book from 1914, complete with illustrations. Keith Thompson designed the art to look like period art, and it adds a significant dimension to the book.

Brandon talks about how he employed these same principles in The Way of Kings, which has in-world maps and in-world illustrations throughout its thousand pages. And of course Howard points how these things apply in the illustration-dependent Schlock Mercenary.

We move into a discussion of how the illustrations affect both the publication process and the storytelling, and how things like deck-plans and engineering diagrams feed back into the story.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, narrated by Alan Cumming

Writing Prompt: Draw the floor plan of the house or building you’re in. Knock out a wall, and write an action scene involving that.

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32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.14: Visual Components of Novels with Scott Westerfeld”

  1. I immediately put leviathan on hold at the library. This was great podcast as always, and I liked hearing a little more why Brandon Sanderson put illustrations in way of kings. By the way, where was Dan?

  2. Excellent podcast as usual. A few things I want to ask for my own edification.

    1. For all this talk about artwork as a promotional, world-building, and atmospheric tool, I am surprised I can’t find this The Way of Kings map anywhere on the interweb (granted my google-fu may be failing me). Making the map and other artwork only accessible in the book is great as a value add but I can’t help but think of the Earthsea books on tape I occasionally get from the library. Not only is the map/art not included but all the original stuff (which may or may not have existed) is now impossible to find.

    2. Having not read “Leviathan” yet this may be moot but I have to know. The way the map portrays it, the conflict in the book takes place (almost) entirely along Clanker/Darwinist lines. This surprised me because the devision seemed to be technological yet causing a political conflict. Not only that, but the technologies sound like they are being treated as mutually exclusive. I was just wondering why Scott decided to emphasis this when the advice you gave in the world building history podcast (3.01) was to avoid monocausationalism.

    3. Have you ever personally elevated any fan art to canon?

  3. Answers:

    1. Whether or not to use materials within the book in the marketing campaign is the publisher’s call. As to its inclusion in audiobooks or ebook editions, again, it’s up to the publisher. I’m pretty sure it’s all included in the ebooks.

    2. Obviously Scott didn’t bother to listen to “Writing Excuses” before setting out to write his novel. Does Leviathan succeed in spite of, or BECAUSE of his ignorance of our advice?

    3. Once. I took the “FOOD” poster that Cannon Hamaker sent me and turned it into table-top decor in one of the strips.

  4. …I only have a couple of internal walls, and if they get knocked out, someone is getting very wet….

    This is going to be fun.

  5. Perhaps this is the podcast that Exiss, the cat burglar of time should have stolen. In my opinion illustrations in novels are unnecessary fluff. Lately I have been buying all my books in audio form so any illustrations are lost to me anyway. I have too little time anymore to set down and read, but I can listen to an audio book on my iPod almost anywhere. Also I have never really been into graphic novels or comics. I have tried to read Howard’s comic online a few times because he sounds like he’s a wonderful guy, but all the artwork tends to get in the way of the text and I lose interest. I would love to see some of Howard’s writing in text form only sometime. Maybe this is a guy thing, as I have heard it said many times that men are more visually oriented. Don’t even get me started on trying to read a map… My only worry with this whole illustration thing is that some writers may get lazy and start relaying on art to describe their world, a room or a character instead of words that I need to make sense of it all.

    Side note: the audio on this podcast was not as good as most. I seemed like a very wet mix with too much reverb. Maybe it was just room acoustics, but it also too much background noise.

  6. @ Howard:
    Thanks. Do you have, perchance, a link we can enjoy.

    @ Oletta:
    While I agree with you on some counts, the atmosphere artwork builds as you read and are exposed to it (when done right) can make a good book great and a great book unforgettable. The text should always be able to stand on it’s own merits (or it is a graphic novel) but good artwork can make all the difference. Besides, from the sounds of it the author isn’t “distracted” by making art as it’s mainly a publisher responsibility.

    And a Howard Taylor book would be Terry Pratchett IN SPACE!!! I can’t wait for that collaborative novel you teased way back when (3.32).

  7. Great podcast. If you’re in to illustrations and funny Victorian space opera then check out Phillip Reeve’s Larklight series. I’m amazed how many people haven’t heard of this series. They are middle grade sci fi with wonderful illustrations. The drawings add an extra level of humor and enjoyment. The audio versions are also delightful. Howard, I think you would particularly fancy these books.

  8. Good stuff, both podcast and Leviathan. I’m a big fan of artwork in books, and there’s not much danger of it morphing into a graphic novel.

    As he’s done in this case, one full-page illustration per chapter (or chapter equivalent) is great. Images within the text are also appreciated, but I never end up following the maps in front. Except for The Hobbit.

    Anyways, favorite Writing Excuses in awhile.

  9. I love it when you guys cover artwork on your casts, since I fall at the other end of the spectrum (illustrator, cutting my teeth on the publishing industry). So many things get pounded into your head at school and work about illustrating that it’s brain-straightening to get a good balancing view from accomplished authors (or author-illustrators) like yourselves.

    On the note of this week’s cast, I remember picking up a fully-illustrated novel a few years ago in the adult fiction section of the library I used to work at. I can’t for the life of me remember what the title of the book, but it was a sort of urban-fantasy mystery told from the point of view of the story’s unwitting antagonist, a man who turns into a wyrm and murders at his master’s bidding. It was riddled with paintings and drawings throughout, and it’s stuck in my memory for years because of that.

    Leviathan’s been on my back-up list of books I really need to read. Unfortunately, I just got my copy of Way of Kings back from my friend, and it keeps fielding my attention when I sit down to read. Oops. Darn you, persistant re-reading!

  10. I’m with Tony, I would love to see the Way of Kings concept art. :-)

    I love old illustrated books, and would love to see illustrations back in adult books. All my favorite artists are old illustrators like Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, Du Lac, or John R Neill. I’ve read Leviathan, and I think it’s a terrific example of prose and art working together to serve the story – I hope this sets a new trend.

    And Oletta – I must disagree with you (this once ;-)) about Schlock’s artwork not adding – there’re just some things that prose can’t do nearly as well as a picture (today’s (11/29) pic of Schlock parkata-ing, for example). Prose also can’t do the little side visual gags that have nothing to do with story – the funny signs or sticking in friend’s characters as faces in the crowd or someone’s shadow showing what that person would REALLY rather be doing. Not to mention facial expressions and body language – in prose, we can describe it, but it isn’t the same. (I draw, so I know what my limitations are when I write. :-P)

  11. Hi Laurie. If I know anything, it is that this will not be the only time you or anyone else disagrees with me and I think that’s a good thing. I love seeing what other people think. First off, I’m not picking on Schlock Mercenary in any way. Howard is a really good artist and he’s a very witty guy. I’ve just never been into comics, including Batman, Superman, Spider man or others. Cartoons and drawings just don’t appeal to me, and if I have the choice between reading a book or watching a movie of the same, I will choose the book 95% of the time. It’s okay to call me a weirdo if you like, I’m use to it. LOL.

  12. I’m only now discovering this place and I love it. The podcasts are entertaining even if you’re not a writer. I’m not.

    As for images in books, I’m all for it but [& there are many buts]:

    They really have to be amazing
    They must have the flavor of the book
    They have to be rich on the level that the writers words are (or richer)

    If they don’t have, at least, these “buts” they will work against text.

    I am one that is big enough to admit to my superficiality. I judge, and always have judged, books by the art. When artwork has the feel of supporting documents/artifacts, or if it adds to the authenticity, then it adds to the whole experience.

    Leviathan artwork is a good marriage.

  13. I am a fan of stories whether they be novels, comics, or movies. A good story is a good story no matter the medium. I enjoy these podcasts because they really give me a lot to think about as far as what makes a story. Great job as always.

  14. @Oletta: If it makes you feel any better, I have a hard time reading comics, too. Heresy for me to admit it, I know, but there it is. The point, of course, is that I totally understand. You’ll get a novel from me someday.

  15. Howard, I totally appreciate you and your work, and I would definitely love to read any novels written by you. One possible reason I’m not into comics is that I am dyslexic. It takes all of my concentration to read and maintain a high level of comprehension. When graphics are added in conjunction with text it tends to overwhelm my senses and I lose my concentration. I find it interesting that a cartoonist like you also has a hard time reading comics.

    As I have already said, my main worry with the whole graphics in novels thing is with some authors getting lazy and begin relaying on pictures to describe things instead of words. As long as they are used only as an enhancement it’s alright. I totally enjoyed Brandon’s Novel, The Way of Kings in it’s audio version without even knowing that he had put in all the artwork. As long as the story stands on its own, added graphics are fine.

  16. Hi Oletta,

    Don’t you think it’s unfair to suggest that every graphic novel wants to grow up to be a novel? It’s almost like saying that every musical really wishes to be a record and/or a straight songless drama.

    I understand the purist ideal; that text doesn’t need image, just as image doesn’t need text. However, a world where they rely on each other is an art form in itself; a good one (when done well). It’s just a different animal, and should be allowed to live.

    BTW, Don’t forget the illuminated manuscripts. They were all about the marriage of text and image. I’d love to see a graphic novel done in that style…if it hasn’t been done already.

  17. Oletta, that makes complete sense. I come from a family of dyslexics, so I know a bit about what that means, particularly about being overwhelmed. Comics with snappy dialogue balloons don’t bother me and books with illustrations don’t bother me, but comics that have huge amounts of prose in them, those bother me a lot – it’s two different mind sets and I can’t meld them.

    I read one comic artist who talked about the pictures as being short hand, they work best when the eye and brain can take them in quickly, so the combination of words and pictures meld better. Japanese manga works very well at this, so does Howard’s artwork, IMO – the pictures are not too complex to follow easily and quickly. (How about a Writing Excuses discussion of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics? ^_^)

    But then, I do read fiction primarily for entertainment, and consider fiction’s first duty to be entertainment, though it can be other things as well, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion right there. ^_^

  18. Hi Laurie, it’s nice to find I’m not the only dyslexic Writing Excuses fan. Most people have no idea how distraction it can be, but there are some ways around it. I found that if I type with my eyes closed my typing speed and accuracy improve drastically.

    I am going to give Howard’s another try. I can do it, it’s just going to take a little more effort on my part to absorb it all in, but listening to Howard talk on the podcast I’m sure it will be worth it.

    If anyone is interested in discussing any of this, or anything writing related I can be contacted at…

    OlettaLiano at gmail.com

  19. “How about a Writing Excuses discussion of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics?”

    Oh, that would be awesome!

  20. Thanks Mike, what’s with the Current Mood: spiderwebs? You got spiders problems over there?

  21. Nah, just chasing down the spiderwoods reference. And we do seem to have a lot of free-floating spider threads right now — I think that means the young spiders are trying out their lines or something. Nothing special, though.

  22. I like the writing prompt a lot. I usually draw some sort of floorplan with most of my stories, it helps me visualise the setting. This prompt is a great example of action demands reaction. If the protagonist has an argument with the antagonist, and a vase or a wall gets destroyed, that’s bound to have an effect on said owner. I could go on and on.

  23. Greetings,

    Long time listener, first time poster, but I adore Writing Excuses.

    Does anyone know of any other titles besides Leviathan and Way of Kings, and Stardust that use illustrations? I’ve read a lot of graphic novels (Watchmen, Sandman, Maus, etc) and am not really talking about that route, but more the illustrated novel. I remember Doug Chiang had something called Robota a few years ago, and I think there were a few Star Wars: Dark Forces books.

  24. The swimming pool / gravity story reminds me of too many D&D dungeon maps …

    “So to enter the Evil Guy’s lair we need to go through this looong maze, filled with deadly traps?”
    “What about all the minions living in the lair? What if they want to, let’s say, bring food into the lair. Or stuff to repair stuff?”
    *Blank Stare*
    “What if they have a day off, and want to visit their loved ones?”
    “They are minions, they don’t need food, or have loved ones!”
    “Ohkay, so let’s move on to this room, with the giant golden statue.”
    “What about it?”
    “It is larger than the entrance, there is no way how it could have ended up in the lair”
    “Well, there is this secret backdoor, that is used for maintenance and stuff”
    “So why don’t we enter the through the back door?”
    “Because … because you are the heros, and you are supposed to go through the maze with the deadly traps.”

    Sometimes I find it hard to create maps that are cool and don’t fall appart the moment you look at them.

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