Making It Up As You Go Along by Paddy Donnelly

This week we invited guest author-illustrator Paddy Donnelly to talk to us about creating his new picture book The Vanishing Lake, published by Yeehoo Press.

I’m always fascinated to hear how other authors and illustrators’ put the pieces of their picture books
together. There can be a variety of methods each person implements, and each process di
ffers wildly. No
matter how many interviews I listen to, or articles I read, every creator seems to follow a di
fferent path
towards their goal. There is one thing they all have in common though. They made that process up, and are
still making it up.

There’s no such thing as a perfect ‘process’ and no two picture book projects follow the exact same set of
steps to completion. Writing and illustrating are quite unpredictable tasks - filled with floods of inspiration as
well as creative droughts. Challenges appear, feedback can be surprising and you can most definitely find
yourself painted into a corner. What’s important to remember is that everyone, no matter how successful
they are, also experience all of these things on each project. It’s how you react to them that spurs you
towards success.

When starting out in this industry, I would view people who were successful as those who’d ‘figured it out’.
They’d discovered the magic formula for putting together a bestseller. However the longer I worked as an
illustrator and author, the more I discovered the common truths that link everyone together. Everyone is full
of doubts. Everyone has made many mistakes. Everyone has been surprised when something became a
‘hit’. And everyone has a dream story idea that nobody has picked up (yet!). It was reassuring to hear that
successful authors and illustrators also took very rambling paths towards where they are today. Nobody in
fact has really figured ‘it’ out. And there’s not really an ‘it’
to figure out. Realising this, and combining it with
some advice from my old university lecturer -
‘Just say yes and figure it out later’, has definitely brought
many enjoyable opportunities my way.

I first got into children’s publishing in 2018, and in the beginning I had no clue how all the different parts of
the publishing machine worked, what publishers like to see in a portfolio, what an agent does or how to
create an e
ffective page turn. I tried to soak up as much knowledge as I could, and while there are many
‘guidelines’ to working in picture books, they are simply that - ‘guidelines’. All these ‘rules’ can be broken.
There’s always a first time for everything. And you can absolutely change your way of working, or
completely switch up your illustration style, or write in another genre. Nothing is set in stone.

My debut author illustrated picture book,
The Vanishing Lake, was published in April 2021 and was such an
enjoyable experience. This is my eighth picture book to be published, but the first where I was gelling the
two halves together.


The Vanishing Lake is about a little girl called Meara who visits her Grandad who lives by a mysterious lake
which disappears and reappears for no apparent reason. She constantly asks her Grandad why it happens
and each time he has a more extravagant and unbelievable reason for her. Meara doesn’t believe any of his
stories about mermaids, giants or narwhals, but with a little imagination she may discover the ‘real’ reason.

The story is actually based on a real place, close to where I grew up in Ballycastle in Ireland. It’s a lake
called Loughareema which actually does disappear and reappear every few days, depending on the

Storytelling is a huge part of life in Ireland, so I was surrounded by myths and legends from a young age
and I think that’s had a big influence on me and my work. Rough seas, rugged coastlines, islands and
mountains are all things I absolutely love to illustrate. That definitely comes from growing up surrounded by
stunning scenery. It’s something I’ve come to appreciate so much more after moving away.

When you grow up with a wonder like this on your doorstep, you definitely take it for granted, and I hadn’t
really thought about it for years. I was brainstorming a few di
fferent story ideas and it somehow popped into
my head one day. I thought the title itself was intriguing and then I set o
ff to build a story around that. I
thought the mystery of ‘why’ the lake would disappear and reappear could be interesting to drive the story,
and then setting the character up to be unwilling to believe each reason, spurred me on to come up with
crazier and crazier ones.


I created the little girl of Meara for kids to relate to, and then I needed a wiser character who could tell her
these tales. A grandparent made the most sense here as there’s something special about the relationship
between grandparent and grandchild. They’re at such di
fferent points in their lives, but there’s often a really
direct connection that kids don’t have with their parents. And grandparents are often full of wild tales.
Playing on that familiar situation of a child asking ‘why?’ something is the way it is, and a parent/
grandparent trying to give an explanation was something I thought both the reading parent and child could
relate to.

Meara couldn’t live by the lake herself, otherwise she’d be like me and probably think it was quite normal
for it to disappear and reappear. The setting had to be familiar and at the same time strange and
mysterious, so that was another reason to make it a grandparent who lived by the lake.

As most picture books have a standard number of pages, I knew how much I had to work with. I laid out
some super rough thumbnails, plotting in the main set pieces - introduction to the lake, having it disappear
and reappear, a few spreads of Grandad’s wild tales and then a few resolution spreads.

Once I had that really rough outline, I made slightly more detailed roughs. Then I finally moved on to the
words. I’d learned a little from my characters from the sketching process, so I could now start writing in
their ‘voices’. For example, I knew the Grandad would be really casually telling these magical stories of
giants and mermaids, brushing them o
ff as completely normal. Of course mermaids pulled the plug out!

I wrote and rewrote, all the while keeping the visuals in mind. 

Trying not to show and tell, but have both the
words and illustrations work together in harmony, as two halves of the same puzzle. 

As I wrote, that would
lead me to new ideas for illustrations, and as I would work on the final illustrations, I would be tweaking the
words. I bounced back and forth, back and forth all the way until the end.

This was very different to my previous book projects, where I was illustrating someone else’s story. Usually
in that situation, the manuscript has already been through an editing process and comes to you fully
formed. So you don’t really have an a
ffect on the actual words as you add the illustrations. I don’t really
want to mess with the author’s words either, and I find that process really fascinating too. You get a huge
flood of images in your head as soon as you read through a really well-formed piece of writing, and the best
manuscripts already get me sketching after the first read.

I wanted to have the natural world shine through in the artwork, using a lot of vibrant colour schemes. I
would take a lot of inspiration from the Irish landscape, but also with a little bit of fantasy world built in. The
mix between imaginary worlds and the real world is a key element in this story, however it’s very di
fficult to
see where one begins and one ends. 

The lines are blurred, and I left plenty of space for the child reading it
to decide what’s real and what’s not.

Maybe you’ll be able to pull some interesting insights out of how I worked on this picture book. Some things
might work for you, some things totally won’t. Take bits and pieces from it, try it backwards, take a
sledgehammer to it! Remember though, that this was my path for this one particular book, and I can already
see that it’s not the same for my second author illustrated picture book. This next one is an entirely di
kind of story and is presenting both new challenges and firsts for me as an author and illustrator. All really
exciting though!

‘Process’ is, and should be, a constantly evolving thing as you grow as an author or illustrator. 

Take comfort
in the fast that everyone else is making it up as they go too. Don’t be afraid to get messy in your process.
Try out something wild, new and scary and see what happens!

What does your current ‘process’ look like? Do you visualise images first when you’re writing a story? Do
the characters already have a voice and you feel like you’re just writing down what they say. Do you have no
idea what your characters will look like until the illustrator sends the first artwork? Or if you both write and
illustrate, how does one fit with the other?

Watch trailer of the book here!

Watch Paddy's short interview here. 


Paddy Donnelly is an Irish illustrator and author of picture books, and also creates middle grade book covers. He wishes Pluto was still a planet. Follow him on Twitter @paddydonnelly and on Instagram at  @paddy



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