Key Points: Maps and illustrations can add a sense of immersion, but they should be meaningful. Illustrations also can force the text novelist to pay more attention to setting, clothing, and other "background" details.
[Brandon]This is Writing Excuses Season Five Episode 14, Visual Components of Novels with Scott Westerfeld.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we're not that smart. I'm Brandon.
[Howard] And I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Scott Westerfeld, the New York Times best-selling author of the Uglies series and the new Leviathan series. Hi, Scott.
[Scott] Hey, how you doing?
[Brandon] Thank you very much for sitting in with us.
[Scott] It's a pleasure.
[Brandon] I have been wanting to do a podcast about this for a long time, and having you gives us this opportunity. What I'm talking about is... when we create novels, we often have a visual component. Even with my early fantasy novels, we were doing symbols, little chapter icons, and headings. You've done something extremely fascinating to me with Leviathan. Will you talk about that a little bit, just to tell people what we're talking about?
[Scott] Well, Leviathan is set in 1914. What I wanted to do was actually make it look like a book from 1914. Of course, those of you who have read old editions of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or HG Wells know that back in the day, 100 years ago, there were illustrations in basically every book. Novels had illustrations in them. That was just par for the course. It wasn't until the 20s and 30s and the era of cheap paperbacks and of photography that illustrations disappeared from novels. I was just thinking to myself, "Wouldn't it be cool if when you read Leviathan, set in 1914, it was like going back in time and you were reading an illustrated novel?" So I am... I realized this about 60 pages in, put the project aside for a while, and found an amazing artist named Keith Thompson, Canadian guy. We've been working on this whole trilogy together. He's doing more than 50 illustrations for every book. So it's an incredible, transformative process for me as a novelist who's never written a graphic novel, never written comics, never written plays or screenplays or anything. Now here I am writing for a visual medium.
[Howard] So that's an extra 50,000 words.
[Brandon] Well, yeah.
[Scott] Technically, yes.
[Brandon] You guys listening haven't seen, particularly, the map for Leviathan. The full-color map. You can find it online. It's been passed around, it's been moving. You see it linked on pages and people don't even know where it's from. It's this gorgeous map. Which is done in the style of the types of maps that were from the period. Did you do that intentionally? Is all the art in the book intentionally replicating art that was done during that time?
[Scott] Yeah. When I first gave the sort of three-year schedule to Keith that was going to cover everything that we were going to do, he said, "Yeah, can we add a month to the beginning of this?" I was like, "You want to go to like Aruba or something?" He said, "No, what I want to do is read Punch magazine for like a month, and just do visual research and figure out how all this stuff is going to look and how it looked back then." With the map, of course, he found all these great allegorical maps from the olden days. Teaching maps for illiterate people where the countries were drawn in the shapes of creatures or objects or people. They're just really amazing. There was a whole genre of maps that were allegorical. He riffed on that and updated it and made this wonderful sort of collage where Russia is in the shape of a giant bear, eating Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary is stabbing at Serbia. Germany is like this huge gun aimed at the head of Russia. It's just a wonderful thing.
[Brandon] It's gorgeous. It plays into... one of the reasons I like this and one of the reasons I wanted to do something like this in Way of Kings is because there are certain things you can show world building-wise in some illustrations that just completely explain everything. That sometimes in fantasy, you can struggle for pages and chapters and books to get a simple idea across...
[Howard] Right. That's why a picture paints 1000 words.
[Howard] What you've done with those illustrations... by the way, my wife has been reading Leviathan to the kids at bedtime. So I've been enjoying the audio book as read by my wife. But what you've done is not just illustrated the novel. You've taken a shortcut to plunge the reader into that world instantly, from the first page.
[Brandon] It's a sense of immersion. I mean, let me tell you what was going on with me at this same time period you're working on this thing. I actually pitched to Tor the Way of Kings which is my big epic. I said I wanted it illustrated. I want to have 15 maps and 15 illustrations.
[Scott] 15 maps? That's great.
[Brandon] Yeah, 15... no, it's like 10 maps and 20 illustrations. But I wanted to... the thing about it is, if you look a world like this, mapmaking cartography is a big part of it. One of the things that I love about something like Tolkien... if you look at Tolkien, the map was a map from in-world. It was a map they carried around. This is something that we've gotten away from in fantasy that really has been a pet peeve of mine for a while. That it's generic that there is going to be a map in the front. Where'd this map come from? This map is just there. You gotta have a map. That's doing it for the wrong reasons, in my opinion.
[Scott] Right. It's a modern map, basically, of this not-modern world.
[Brandon] Exactly. Exactly. I said I want to have maps. I want to have... one of the maps that we have is actually a shell that someone carried around, that they carved instructions and a little diagram themselves because they're illiterate, to get around in the camp. So... we wanted to have... I wanted to have this, and I pitched this to them. Tom Dougherty, who's the president of Tor, wonderful guy, says, "Brandon, if we put too many illustrations in, they'll think it's a graphic novel, and that will lose your audience. We're very worried... really worried about this." Did you have any resistance with that? Where they said, "We don't want to do a graphic novel. You're a novelist. If we pitch a graphic novel, it's a different audience. They may not buy it."
[Scott] It actually wasn't... the issue wasn't to do with a graphic novel. But because I'm a YA writer, which means I write typically for 12 up... 14 up. That means... so when they heard it was going to be a lot of illustrations, they thought, "Oh, so you're doing a middle grade?" In other words, you're doing something for age 10 through 12 rather than 12 up.
[Brandon] Oh, of course.
[Scott] I had to convince them. "No, this is actually a totally legit teen novel. We're going to keep totally in the teen novel world, but there's going to be..." I started off saying 20 illustrations, then sort of moved it to 20 to 30. The contract says 30 to 40, and we turned in 50. So I was edging up the whole time, knowing there would be a little bit of resistance grade-level-wise. That's one of the things that happened with... in the history of English-language books, is that the illustrations dropped out of adult books first, in like the 20s. Then in the 30s and 40s, they started dropping out of the teen books. It became a marker of age. Whereas, of course, originally all books...
[Brandon] Were illustrated.
[Scott] Were illustrated. This whole idea that the two people who were supposed to have pictures in their books were little kids and those dirty immigrants who couldn't speak English. Which is what comics were all about, and why comics have always been demonized. Especially in the 40s 50s in America. I think that is sort of what... that sort of weird slightly Puritan approach to what illustrations are. You get lots of people still saying, "Oh, but don't you want to use your imagination?" I'm like, "Did people get imaginations in 1920?" Because before then, there were illustrations in all these books. This was a technological shift having to do with cheap paperbacks, photography, and other stuff. It has nothing to do with the imagination. It has to do with custom and style and all this other stuff.
[Brandon] If that were the argument, you wouldn't put these beautiful cover illustrations on all the books that we do.
[Howard] As a comic book guy, when I look at books that have illustrations in them, I find that... my imagination... Let me back up a little bit. If you're outlining something, you're able to write an outline, and then look at your outline and leap from there further into the book then you were on that first pass. With an illustration, your imagination is able to start at the illustration and leap much further into the book then you could have without the illustration being there to begin with. Does that make sense?
[Scott] Yeah. Especially as somebody who's writing steam punk, I have found it very useful. Because I've been on the school and I've been doing tours... I mean, I'm sorry, I've been on this tour and I've been doing schools. You go into like a Catholic boys' school and sit in front of like 350 boys in ties, little uncomfortable, squeaky on their chairs. If I start saying, "Steampunk is Victorian science fiction something something something Jules Vern something something..." they would all just tune out so fast. Instead, I have my little iPad, and I have my little projector, and I show a big giant walking tank. They all say, "Dude, big giant walking tank!" They sit up, they pay attention, and it is awesome from then on out. I don't have to go into what steampunk is. They know and see and feel what steampunk is. They know it's an old-fashioned tank. They start asking immediately why is it old-fashioned? Why does it have legs? What happened to the wheels? What... that looks like... one kid said, "That looks like a Spandau machine gun." I was like, "Yeah, it is. How'd you know?" He said, "Oh, it's just a British version of a... oh, it's just the German version of a Maxim gun." They knew all this stuff. They had this visual culture down, when it came to military stuff. Just to give them a glimpse of that immediately transported them... it saved a lot of time. Not into... not even necessarily about being transported into the story, but even being transported into the project of the idea that they would want to read this book in the first place.
[Brandon] That's... I mean, having done school presentations before, I so envy you having that, the visual component.
[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week, which is, not surprisingly, going to be Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Scott, why don't you give us like a 30 second promo of this book? We've been doing it the entire podcast, but...
[Scott] Sure, but... no, this will... OK, 30 seconds. It's set during the Great War, World War I. It's told from the point of view of the son of the Arch Duke Ferdinand. He's one of the characters. The other one is Deryn Sharp, who is a girl pretending to be a boy so she can serve in the Royal Air Navy. She is... they're sort of like Romeo and Juliet, Montague and Capulet, thrown together, forced to become allies. The background of the world is that the Germans have this sort of very steampunk, dieselpunk walking tanks thing going on. The Darwinists, the other side in the war... basically Charles Darwin discovered DNA and started creating this Edwardian biotechnology. So the airships are alive. There's message lizards. Flechette bats that eat spikes and poo them on the enemy. So it's basically... it's living machines versus these metal walking machines.
[Brandon] Excellent. And it's read by Alan Cumming. Which is a big selling point, I think, for the audio book. You can download... go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 15 day free trial. Download a free copy of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, which I highly recommend. It is an excellent book.
[Scott] Now, one of the things I want to talk about, just to make sure we get to it, is that I... writing an illustrated novel, one of the cool things about it is that it's created all these new storytelling techniques that I have to use. Like there were a couple of cases where I did like five scenes in a row at night. When the sketches came back, I was like, "Keith, these are kind of dark." He was like, "Dude, it's night." I realized that's not an issue when you're a regular text novelist. But when you're doing an illustration every chapter, you have to break up the light scenes and the dark scenes. The same thing happened with too many scenes in a row being crowded. Or too many scenes in a row with just two people in them. Like, you have to let the visual space in which your story is happening sort of breathe.
[Howard] Welcome to my world. As I script Schlock Mercenary, I deal with that all the time.
[Brandon] I can write, "Hey, it's a crowd of 5000 people." Howard, if you want to put a crowd of 5000 in, it's a completely different...
[Howard] A crowd of 5000 isn't all that hard, because you can back up and you can average.
[Brandon] That's right. A crowd of 15?
[Howard] A crowd of 15 is really annoying, especially when you know 10 of them.
[Scott] I wrote one scene and Keith sent me back the illustration. I said, "Like, there's five people in this scene. Why are there only three in your illustration?" He said, "Well, yeah, it was kind of crowded." I was like, "Keith, put them in there." He sent me the sketch. I was like, "Oh, wow, you're right, it is crowded. It doesn't look good, it doesn't look right. The cabin they're in, it's an airship cabin, it's too small. I should rewrite the scene, shouldn't I?"
[Howard] That's one of the things that fascinated me. Even working within a visual medium, there are things that I often don't think about. I had a friend design deck plans for one of my ships. He showed me these deck plans. We talked about them, and I suddenly realized, "Wow, that's a... if the gravity goes out, the swimming pool ends up running through the ship this way." We both laughed and laughed and laughed. That ended up in the story. It wouldn't have been there if I hadn't been looking at an illustration that somebody else had done based on my concept sketches.
[Scott] I feel like... Keith's a better engineer than me. I used to think that oh, I visualize everything, I know what this stuff looks like. I'm a perfectly good science-fiction novelist full of world building-iness. Then when he starts sending me stuff, I'm like, "It's not that big, is it?" He said, "Yo, check it out. You said this, this, and this about it. These objects have to fit into it." I'm like, "Oh, yeah, you're right." Because he has to know in a way I don't have to know. He has to know what people are wearing. I don't have to know that. In every scene you write, you don't necessarily know what they're wearing.
[Brandon] Did you find it helpful though? I'll tell... when I was doing Way of Kings, I actually commissioned some concept art that didn't end up in the book. That I wasn't planning to put in the book, but gave me the characters. Suddenly I'm like, "Wow, I want to do this with every book I ever write because I have right in my hands exactly how this person looks, and I can describe quirks of them in a way that I actually... I couldn't before." It was very interesting.
[Scott] Yeah. We wound up doing deck plans. They're in color, they're incredibly richly complex. We're actually going to wind up doing an all art book, sort of like the Spiderwick field guide that Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black did. The deck plans will eventually be available. They're not in the novels, but we're going to do a color large-format book because that stuff is so cool.
[Brandon] All right. Well, we're out of time. Howard, I'm going to make you give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] OK. I'm going to make you draw a picture. I want you to draw, from above, draw the floor plan of the house or the building that you are in. Now write an action scene that involves knocking out one of those walls.
[Brandon] OK. You're out of excuses, now go write.