The picture book writing class I teach annually through the Wind Ridge Books Writer’s Barn starts up again this week, and I have a mix of new and returning students. Because the picture book realm encompasses so many different kinds of forms, not just narrative storytelling, it’s always an interesting challenge to shape the class. I send out a questionnaire before the workshop begins, asking the writers to share their goals for the class and to articulate their primary challenges with writing. This year, I’ve heard a lot about frustrations with the revision process, completing projects, and accountability between classes.
Below, you’ll read many wonderful tips on the picture book writing process that several very generous published authors and illustrators shared with me a few years ago. I’d like to invite you author and artist colleagues to chime in with any tidbits you have found particularly helpful, especially on the topics of revision, staying focused, and knowing when a manuscript is ready to be pried out of your ever-editing hands.
WRITING TIPS FROM PUBLISHED AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS
A few years ago, I invited my writer friends and colleagues to share their favorite picture-book tips for new and young writers. Here’s what they said:
THINK OF A PICTURE BOOK AS A CIRCLE rather than as a linear progression. A story starts with a problem / relationship / mystery / whatever…. and no matter what happens between the beginning and the ending, the story must circle back to the beginning problem, etc. but of course with the problem solved, the mystery cleared up, the relationship resolved. — Marguerite Davol, The Paper Dragon
ONE WAY TO START is with the art: draw the same character three times — sad, happy, and perplexed—and think about why s/he might be feeling that way. Or draw a setting and imagine the story that would take place there. Or draw an object and imagine the story it holds. My notebooks are full of such drawings and they sometimes grow into published work. — Laura Kvasnosky, Zelda and Ivy
ALWAYS BEGIN with a storyboard. It’s the only way to see the visual movement of the book. — Claudia Rueda, My Little Polar Bear; Here Comes Valentine Cat
WRITING POETRY is good practice for creating picture books. Economy of language is essential. Just like in a poem, every single word in a picture book must carry worlds of meaning. — Jacqueline Jules, Benjamin and the Silver Goblet; Sofia Martinez: My Family Adventure
FOR RHYMING BOOKS: Sound, sense, rhythm — these cannot be strained in order for a poem to work. —Joan AIken, in The Way to Write for Children
IF YOU’RE STUCK on a line or a rhyme or an idea, talk a walk, preferably with dogs. Move in the rhythm of the text, say it out loud as you go, and you’ll be surprised how many writing problems solve themselves. Showers are good for this, too—but don’t walk in them; too slippery. — Elizabeth Bluemle, How Do You Wokka-Wokka?
USE REPETITION, BUT SPARINGLY—a little bit creates a fun, effective pattern, but too much becomes… repetitive. — Chris Barton, Shark Vs. Train; That’s Not Bunny
WORDS DON’T NEED to repeat what the pictures already show. And pictures can tell a different story from the one told by the words. — Sergio Ruzzier, Hey, Rabbit!; Two Mice
YOU DON’T NEED [ONLY] WORDS to tell the story. It’s great to use them and have FUN with them (and INVENT new ones whenever you can), but make sure your book leaves some space for pictures without words attached. — Alexis O’Neill, Loud Emily; The Kite That Bridged Two Nations
SOME OF THE THINGS I share with kids are: the importance of leaving room in the text for the illustrations to tell their own part of the story. Also, something I was taught in art school: never show an apple and say “apple”—rather show an apple and say something that adds to the communication like: “delicious” or “juicy”.) Another good thing to remember is that the adult or parent in the story should never solve the problem for the child protagonist—sort of obvious but so many beginners let the adults ‘save the day.’ Another obvious one: read it aloud to yourself and others to hear awkward phrasing and unwanted repetition. — Laya Steinberg, Thesaurus Rex
IF IT IS A CHARACTER-DRIVEN book, it really helps to fully know who the character is before getting into the story. If you look at people you know and use their personality quirks in your own characters…, they will be more fun and believable. Of course, you could also find yourself with fewer friends…. — Sarah Dillard, Mouse Scouts
DON’T FORGET to play ALL the parts/roles in the story. That way, all of your characters will feel three-dimensional and real. —Susan Fletcher, Dadblamed Union Army Cow
WRITE VISUALLY: What picture opportunities does the text invoke? • FOCUS ON THE CONCRETE instead of abstract: Abstract is difficult to illustrate. • CONSIDER PAGE-TURNING ‘HOOKS’: What compels young readers to turn the page? Can be traditional hook but also a phrase / rhythm that guides the hand to turn the page. • ILLUSTRATIONS AREN’T DECORATION: Illustrations partner with words to convey meaning • WRITE FAST to get the story down; THEN cut cut cut until you find the essence of story: Add only what’s necessary. • AVOID using an adult / authoritative voice: Say it using words/tone/style natural to the reader. — Marcia Thornton-Jones, The Bailey School Kids; Woodford Brave
SEED THE RESOLUTION in the beginning of the book. It makes the ending so much more satisfying. Example: In my picture book, Maggie and the Monster, Maggie tells her mother early on in the story that besides the little noisy monster who comes into her room every night, there’s also a monster who lives upstairs in the closet behind the brooms. Later, when the little monster admits to Maggie that she’s looking for her mother, Maggie knows just where to find that mother. Upstairs in the closet behind the brooms. The resolution was “seeded” early on… — Elizabeth Winthrop, Dumpy LaRue; Lucy and Henry Are Friends
SURPRISE ‘EM at the end. Don’t be predictable. Just when readers think they know what will happen, give the story a twist. That’s what makes it fun. — Patricia Thomas, Red Sled; Green Bean
WRITE the kind of book you love and a story you love because you will be spending a lot of time with it — revising and revising and revising some more. —Martha Peaslee Levine, Stop That Nose!; The Twelve Days of Christmas in Pennsylvania
THIS IS A REVISION SUGGESTION—Ask someone who is not familiar with the story to read it out loud to you. Don’t let them preview it! You want them to be dealing with the words on the page for the first time. You’ll hear the rough spots. Sit with another copy of the ms. so you can take notes. — Harold Underdown, editor
READ EACH SENTENCE, each paragraph, out loud and eventually the whole manuscript. Listen for the sounds, the rhythm, the “music” and emotion that are created. See the images. Imagine a [reader] reaching for the book to touch, taste and even feel the words. — Nancy Bo Flood, The Hogan That Great-Grandfather Built; Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo
[THE BEST STORIES GIVE YOU] … one belly laugh, one gasp of surprise, one tear (from the rightness of things). — Bruce Coville, Amber Brown Horses Around; Moongobble & Me
DON’T EAT THE GLUE. It’s for the binding, kids. — Ann Angel, Adopted Like Me
Aren’t those fabulous?
Again, I’d like to invite you author and artist colleagues to chime in with any tidbits you have found particularly helpful, especially on the topics of revision, staying focused, and knowing when a manuscript is done.
Thanks so much! My students will be grateful, too.
BONUS TIP: Recently, I was on a walk with my friends Chris Tebbetts (Public School Superhero; Middle School 7: Just My Rotten Luck) and Liza Woodruff (Emerson Barks; and illustrator of If It’s Snowy and You Know It, Clap Your Paws!), and they shared a great tip they’d picked up at a recent writing retreat. When a discussion there turned to writing discipline, one writer told the group that she pays herself $15/hour to write, and those funds go into a separate bank account that she then uses for retreats and trips throughout the year. Now, that’s a kind of motivation I’d never thought of!