How Writers Work – Narelle Oliver

This is a weekly series of guest posts on How Writers Work. This week, award winning children’s picture book author and illustrator Narelle Oliver gives us an insight into her writing and illustrating life.

1. How my first book was published.
I started writing and doing the illustrations for my first picture book in 1985. At the time, I was a full-time teacher of hearing-impaired students, making lots of classroom picture books with them and reading all kinds of picture books to them every day. (Queensland School for the Deaf had a wonderful library and art-making facilities including a dark room.) I had a few ideas for my own, but it was not until I attended a summer school with author-illustrator Irena Sibley, that I was forced to write one (a requirement for attending) and start to work on the illustrations. I chose to do the illustrations in linocut print as I had enjoyed this medium at college, and felt it suited the dark rainforest setting with its interesting light patterns. I worked on the illustrations over the next two years, and dropped back to teaching part-time to do this. I was very determined to finish it – and for it to be the best artwork I could do. Some of the illustrations were repeated three or four times, as complete linocuts, until I was happy enough with them – and could imagine them in a published picture book. Because I didn’t have a portfolio of illustrations to show a publisher, I decided that this complete sample book would be that.
Because the book was unusual in medium and the story plot was based on the adaptation of a less-well-known creature (a leaf-tail gecko) to its rainforest habitat, I decided to send my sample book to the Australian Conservation Foundation for their advice on publishers. I had been doing some artwork for them and knew that they sometimes co-published with small publishers. They forwarded the sample book to Sue McCulloch who, as McCulloch Publishing, was a small publisher of fine art books. She liked it and, even though she had not published a children’s picture book before, decided to publish it – in large format and with beautiful heavy stock. My first picture book, “Leaf Tail” was born. By this time, I had a new baby – my daughter Jessie – who was close to being one year old at the launch. And so began my days of popping into bookshops, checking if Leaf Tail was there, enquiring why not, or putting it to the front of the bookshelf. By the time Leaf Tail was launched, I was onto another picture book, and I’ve never really stopped.

2. My writing-illustrating routine.
Before I actually start to plan my words and pictures on paper, I have usually been thinking and developing my story idea for years. I think of it as a jigsaw puzzle in my head – gradually more and more pieces are added as I get ideas from all kinds of places. Finally, the last piece might drop into place and I can start. This process is usually happening as I am working on the finished artwork for an earlier book. (which often takes me a couple of years or so.)

The next step is to get the story idea into a set number of double-page spreads. I do this using a storyboard. At this stage, I am doing thumb-nail sketches and just describing the step of the story in words. (not the actual final words of the story).

This step can be quick if I’ve done a lot of thinking and the plot is simple. Or it can be worked over and changed many times if the plot is less straightforward. Once I’ve finished this storyboard, I do feel like the hard work has been done. At this point, I write the actual text for each step. This process takes only about a day as I have already “told” the story as much as I can in the pictures. I try to only write about things which cannot be communicated or communicated effectively enough through the pictures, or to extend the feeling of the page beyond what I can show in an illustration. Before I have this day of writing, I try to get “in the zone”. I read and read some of my favourite picture books, just immersing myself in the simple pared-back language required.

Once I have the words down, I do a large rough of each double page spread with the words typed to size so I can see how much space they take up and how I will design the page with them there. This stage usually takes me a couple of months or more of solid work – as I like the roughs to be fairly “finished” so that it is the clearest representation of my thoughts for a prospective publisher to look at. I often change the design of pages over and over until I’m happy.

The next step is to convert two of the rough sketches to finished artwork so that the prospective publisher can see how I will tackle this. That will be another couple of months or more if I’m experimenting with new media. (this stage took a whole year in the book I’m currently working on, as it is a mix of cut-paper collage, photography and printmaking and I found myself on a rather huge learning curve for making it work.)

After sending the roughs and the finished artwork to a publisher, then I may receive a contract. Or I might have to discuss changes at this stage, and try these and submit again. I hate this stage. It’s the first time I am showing my idea to the wider world. No matter how many picture books I do, I am nervous about how the idea will be received. As I wait to hear from a commissioning editor, I start to wonder if I have been living in “a fool’s paradise’ for thinking that my idea for a book was worth developing and submitting.

If I receive a contract, it’s all systems go – another couple of years to complete all the illustrations! Part of my year is spent speaking in schools, so I guess it would probably take me a year, if I worked solely on a picture book. However, I like having to spend a couple of years on the book. During this time, my thinking often develops and I fine-tune the words and sometimes have to go back and re-do earlier illustrations, with the benefit of new insights. (although I try not to do this too much – or it would never be finished – and I always have a publisher’s deadline to meet in the end.)

Whew….. are you still with me?? Is this too long for a blog??

3. My writing-illustrating space.
I won’t say too many more words – just feast your eyes on the clutter.

4. My latest work in progress.

I was very lucky to receive an Australia Council grant a couple of years ago… and I’m still working on getting the artwork right in my latest picture book. As I said earlier, it’s a mix of media – which is lots of fun, and I get to use some of the beautiful bits of paper I’ve collected over the years as well as some photography which I also enjoy. I am learning some big lessons about how busy or not to make the illustrations – it is very tempting to keep piling on the collage items, I find – until there is no safe place for the eye to rest on an illustration.

Enough said! Publisher is Omnibus/Scholastic and the book is due for release mid-2012.

Not sure of the final title yet – but it’s my first book where I have humour in the illustrations. I do find that I’m smiling as I look at them – but maybe it’s just lack of sleep.

Please feel free to read more and see lots of pictures at

2 thoughts on “How Writers Work – Narelle Oliver

  1. I really enjoyed the interview, Narelle! Loved reading about how you work – would love to see some more piccies (and more detail) about the lino-cutting process, one of my favourite mediums. 🙂
    Do you use oil based inks or water?
    How do you keep that area looking so clean or it not where you ink up etc? How you clean up all those little bits of lino cuttings that end up in the oddest of places?? Questions, questions, questions.
    Thank you, Gabrielle for getting Narelle on your blog!
    Sheryl xx

  2. Hello Sheryl
    Yes, my desk does look clean – in terms of not having printing ink everywhere. I’m not a very messy printmaker. When I do print, I clear the desk of most stuff and put paper down -then take everything away at the end. I use Japanese oil-based inks – I find they are the finest and best quality. Because I use a very fine tool, my cuts are quite shallow so the ink has to be quite “fine” . I also need to use very thin paper- not much thicker than rice paper. I print them by hand with a spoon which is more like the Japanese method – than with a press and heavy paper. (I press harder on bits of the print which I want to be darker – which is something not achievable with a press.) I sweep up all the little lino bits with a dustpan and brush – usually just at the end of the day. Let me know if you have any more questions! Good to hear from you. Narelle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *