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How Do You Write a Picture Book?

Recently, a friend  asked me to read a script for a picture book and it got me thinking about what I’d learned about picture books since writing my own (plus reading about 40 a week to my toddlers over the past few years). So here’s 6 facts and 10 techniques to get you started…

FACTS

1. Picture books are usually 32 pages. Less if you’re doing a board book.
2. The first 3 or 4 pages are front matter so you probably only have 28 to play with.
3. These books are made to be read aloud by adults. Among the short words kids know, you can employ long words to add to a kids vocabulary (maybe make up your own sillydillicus ones!?).
4. Don’t ask someone to illustrate your book. Publishers don’t want to hire an author/illustrator team unless they are family (or the same person). An editor will team you up with a good artist. Your work should stand on its own. Be brave.
5. You don’t have to rhyme
6. The writer does not describe the art. It’s the artist’s contribution to embellish your words into a visual world. You may include some notes for clarity. For instance, if the art is supposed to contradict the text “She was very, very brave.” (she is actually very afraid).

A typical week's haul from the library
A typical week’s haul from the library

TECHNIQUES
1. Each day, write out the text of one picture book you love, (or is a hot seller – know the market!), into your word processor. Examine how many words are on each page. Where are the page breaks? How long does the story spend on each element? Keep track of whether it’s a separate page, or a spread that goes across two pages. How and when are spreads used? Is this an old example or a recent one?
2. Keep track of the author, illustrator, editor and publisher for each book. Develop a familiarity with the industry. Note editors and publishers whose books are like what you want to pitch. You want to know where you’ll be welcome (but not too much like their current list).
3. Write a picture book in a day. You’re only going to have one or two sentences on a page probably. You could send 28 texts in a day right? Your story will be terrible, but it’s down on screen. Write another one tomorrow. Maybe with the same character? Maybe a whole new idea? Keep doing this.[/li] 4. Once you have a few scripts, rewrite an old draft looking at the text. Or rewrite one just remembering what you wanted to say. See which parts of each version is better.
5. Picture books don’t always have “stories” so to speak. Concept book will teach things like opposites, shapes or in the case of my book, the noises made by animals beyond Old McDonald’s farm. If you do want to write a story, you might want to look at Dan Harmon’s story circles. He breaks down a story’s structure into 8 parts. 32 can be divided by 8 quite nicely. Hmmmm….
6. Read your stories aloud. Parents, teachers, and librarians will. Notice how and where you stumble. Rewrite.
7. Less is more. Strip your prose down to poetic-like levels.
8. Make a “dummy” of your book. Print out the text. Cut it up and place it on blank sheets of paper you staple together. Get a feel for how your story looks and works as a book.
9. Join an organization like SCBWI, Canscaip, or find a kidlit group in your area, and/or on social media.
10. Try to be aware of picture books’ over-done tropes. Either avoid them, or find a new twist on an old one.

 

I think that I was lucky enough to pick up a lot of this, because much of this holds true for writing comics. Obviously, both forms combine pictures and words. Us cartoonists need to pick our words carefully, to fit in word balloons. We think about page turns and spreads. We are used to seeking out community (comic cons are more public that literary and library conferences). So, if you’re looking to get better at those things, you could do worse than looking to comics to learn.

Good luck, and happy writing!