Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Smart Tips for Smart Dummies from Cyndi (Kung Pow) Marko and a Prize!

Note: This post was updated at 8:30pm PST (To the tune of the Chicken Dance thanks to DH). Half the post was missing. It has now been updated!

It's so nice to have Cyndi Marko back on my blog! If you missed the first post check it out. Cyndi Marko is one of the members of the SCBWI Canada West Illustrators. She has a wonderful chapter book series called "Kung Pow Chicken". Her series is much like a picture book in the amount of pictures she uses to create her books. If you are interested in Cyndi's books go to your local book store or check out the link here!

Be sure to check the bottom of this post for a prize!


Smart Tips for Smart Dummies!

I’ve learned a lot about creating dummies since I first started writing and illustrating books for kids eight years ago. Back then it took me six or seven months to make a dummy. Now I can complete a forty-page dummy, complete with covers, endpapers, and color samples, in about a week. No, I didn’t make a deal with the devil (but I am open to it if he’s got something awesome to offer, just saying); I simply drew so much that over time I got pretty good and pretty fast at it.

I’ve compiled some tips I hope will help you to create smart dummies!


I write picture books spread by spread. I have even created a picture book template in Scrivener that is separated into sixteen spreads. (I use a 40 page format that has 32 interior pages as well as front matter and front and back endpapers.) This helps me make the most of pacing and page turns. As a picture book writer, page turns are your friend! Think of some of your favorite picture books. How have they used page turns to add suspense, humor, or drama to the story? You can learn to do this, too! (If you’d like to see more about how I use Scrivener to write picture books, you can see my template and process here: http://cyndimarko.com/2014/08/25/authorillustrator-blog-hop-creative-process/ )

I also see the pictures in my head as I write. I make a lot of illustration notes for myself in the manuscript. (I remove most of them later on if I need to send the text to a crit partner or my agent, and only leave the ones that are needed to make sense of the text. If I send a text document with a dummy I remove all of them.)


If you don’t write in spreads like I do, make sure you know your spreads BEFORE you begin sketching. The easiest way for me is to print off the ms and divide the text up using pencil to mark spreads.

But even being as prepared as possible, sometimes adjustments to spreads need to be made mid-dummy as the story and sketches evolve. Be flexible! (and know that changes are imminent once an agent or editor becomes involved!)


I like to do a page or two of character sketches before I start the dummy. Once I have a character design I’m happy with, I draw them from a few different angles. Have you ever drawn a character that looked great in frontal view, and then realized they didn’t work in ¾ or profile? Yeah, me too. Also, make sure you can draw your character consistently each time. This skill takes practice. I used to find this challenging, but after drawing the characters from my KPC books several hundred thousand times *twitches*, I can do this easily now.

As I mentioned above, I use a lot of illustration notes. Sometimes these are to illustrate the words I’ve written, and sometimes these are to illustrate the words I DIDN’T write. Let your story be fluid and evolve. As I sketch, I make changes to the text. Sometimes I find a line of text has become redundant and I’ll remove it. Sometimes an illustration means I can remove descriptions from the text. And sometimes I find adding a line enhances what the illustration is showing. Let the art and text work together.


Before starting your dummy, decide how many pages you think it will be. There are several formats for picture books. The most common are 24, 32, and 40 pages. (See how they are multiples of eight? That has to do with how printed pages are folded and cut.)

When designing your compositions, be mindful of where the gutter lies. Try not to put anything important in the gutter, like faces or important objects. (The gutter is the space on either side of where two pages are joined.) Also, leave plenty of room on the page to place the text. This might sound like obvious advice, but trust me, it isn’t! (Says the lady who has made this mistake a time or two.)


I like to use a lot of variety in my dummies. If the scenes are all from the same angle, with the characters the same size, the dummy risks being boring and predictable. But variation needs to be deliberate and purposeful! For example, if your character feels sad and alone in a scene, showing them from a great distance in a sparse background helps to illustrate isolation.

I have a standard view I use throughout that acts as sort of a visual normal or a starting point. From there I zoom in for a close up, zoom out to tiny silhouettes, look down from bird’s eye view, look up from worm’s eye view, but I always come back to visual normal. Think of yourself as a director and you get to tell the camera where to go…er, what shots to take!

I also vary the type of illustrations I use. I like to mix things up with spots (an object or character with no background), scenes-for lack of better terminology (an object or character with a background that is surrounded by white page), and bleeds (where the illustration fills the entire page.) I also like to incorporate at least two full spreads if I can (a single illustration that fills both pages of a spread, also known as a double-page spread.)


I keep an illustration journal. When I do a color sample for a dummy (and as I worked through the KPC books), I write down what color I used for each aspect of the illustration. Don’t rely on your brain to remember this information! I have a special notebook I keep on my work table and the only information I write in it is colors used for projects.

I also buy lots of those plastic palettes from the dollar store for my tube watercolors. I use a different one(s) for each project. I write the name of the color on each color well, and the project name on the back. When not in use I stack them (when the paints are dry), put the cover on the top one, and wrap an elastic around them. They are ready for use when you come back to that project later on. There are many ways to keep organized to maintain consistency as you work on color. Do whatever works for you!

SMART TIP: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE (hint: it’s not kids!)

Well okay, yes, *grumbles* we write picture books for kids. BUT we make dummies for agents and editors. Sell your work by helping them see the big picture. The more your dummy looks like a real book, the more agents and editors will be able to picture it on bookstore shelves. The more professional your dummy looks, the more professional they will think you are! (so far I’ve hoodwinked my amazing agent and at least a couple of savvy editors!)

I include front and back covers, I write (hopefully) clever back cover copy. I include creative endpapers. I make use of typography. I create copyright/dedication and title pages. The announcement from my latest sale actually borrows a phrase to describe the book that I wrote as a funny dedication!

Having a design background definitely helps when designing a picture book, but it’s a learnable skill. Look at lots of picture books and study their design. Read design books. (I recommend this one, The Non-designers Design Book by Robin Williams: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780133966152 )

Once acquired, an art director or designer will design the cover and title, pick the fonts, and design the interior layout. The editor will likely write the cover copy. But at the submitting stage it’s all about presentation. Make yours the best you can make it.


Learning to write and illustrate well enough for publication is hard. Twice as hard as doing either of those things separately. Be patient with yourself as you learn your craft and don’t feel pressured to send queries before you think you are ready. (I waited four years!) And have fun!

Follow Cyndi:

Webpage: http://cyndimarko.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/CynMarko



One lucky entrant to the Smart Dummies challenge will receive a book from the Freddy Frogcaster series. Kindly donated by the Illustrator Russ Cox!  Series written by Janice Dean. Please comment below so I know you want this book!


  1. Love Cyndi's work! Great tips too. I always wonder about illo notes - which are for my eye only vs what do I show my critique group.

  2. Love these interviews Dani. Reading them every day and learning more about writing and illustrating.

  3. Wow cutting down dummy time from 7 months to a week - that's something for me to strive towards!

  4. Me want book - UGGA! (LOL)
    Thanks so much, Dani (and contributors) for all these fabulous posts

  5. Cyndi, I loved learning about the way you work. This is so interesting and encouraging to think the challenging parts of drawing are just a question of practice. If you can draw a dummy in one week, how many dummies does that make in one year. My head is spinning. LOL!

  6. Lol! Just to be clear, a week to draw the dummy comes after spending a long time preplanning the illustrations and getting the text as perfect as I can. The text also always changes a bit once I start dummying!

  7. Great advice, as always, Cyndi! Thanks for sharing! And I love seeing your dummy sketches! Your art is AMAZING! —Salina

    1. Awww, thanks so much Salina!! :) You're such an awesome friend!! xoxo

  8. Really like Cyndi's drawing and advice. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks so much everyone, and super big thanks to Dani for having me as a guest!! :)

  10. Great post! love the characters!