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Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Apr 23, 2016 7:20 am

First - a quick introduction. I'm Joanne Sher - a moderator here, writer, editor, and blogger for the FaithWriters blog. Been an FWer almost 10 years, and a couple years ago I changed my writing focus to picture books. The lovely Jan is insanely busy with "life," and she asked me to fill in with a couple lessons on my new area of expertise. Hope those of you interested in this type of lesson get something out of this!

Many assume that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. After all, the word counts are lower, right? And kids can't understand as much as adults, so you can write simpler – correct?

Well, those statements may or may not be true in some cases, but after spending the past two plus years studying the craft of writing children's books (and children's picture books in particular), I have to tell you that, in MY opinion, it is actually MORE difficult. And, as far as writing picture books themselves, it is totally unlike any other form of writing I have encountered. But it is also LOADS of fun.

Welcome to the wonderful world of writing picture books.

I could write a book (a full length one ;) ) on all I have learned – but that is not my goal here. Besides, several folks have already done that much better than I could (and I will list a couple of them at the bottom of these lesson if you want more information). I'm just going to give you some tips and highlights of all you need to know to master this craft.

Let's start with a definition. What is a picture book? It is not, as you may think, simply a book with pictures.

A picture book is a book – generally for children – in which the illustrations are as important as (or even more important than) the words in telling the story.


So a picture book is a joint venture. The author tells one part of the story, and the illustrator another. But the catch? As the author, you DON'T get to tell the illustrator (who, unless you are a really good artist, isn't you) what to do.

Got it? Good. Let's talk about some things the picture book author needs to keep in mind

KEEP IT SHORT: As a rule, today's picture book manuscripts are 500 words or less (ideally less). That is shorter than Writing Challenge-length! Every word must count, even more than in other types of writing. As one professional (sorry, can NOT remember exactly who it was) said, you must make every word fight for its existence.

And just FYI – I know that picture books used to run longer. But today, long picture books are no longer on shelves for the most part (though picture book biographies are a notable exception – but fiction picture books almost to a fault fall under these guidelines).

LEAVE ROOM FOR THE ILLUSTRATOR: Remember my definition up there? You as author are not telling the whole story. Picture books are an interaction between, not only the book and the reader, but the words and the illustrations.

But how do you do this? This is a continual learning process for me. But I can give you my most helpful suggestion.

Save physical descriptions for only the most critical aspects. Anything that an illustrator can show (hair color, height, weather, - even whether the character is an animal or a person) should not be in the text, unless it is absolutely critical to the story. Instead, use your words for descriptions of senses that are not “illustratable” – smell, taste, touch, hearing.

Another thing: notes for the illustrator are generally frowned upon. Remember – it's not just your story! However, if what you want the illustrations to show cannot be figured out from the text (for example, if you have an unreliable narrator and want the pictures to show “the truth” while the words tell what the narrator wants to share) and it is critical to the storyline, then limited, not specific, notes are okay. But don't tell the illustrator what to do. Just like you don't want to change your story to fit someone's illustrations, you have to give the illustrator freedom to bring his or her own vision to the story.

IF YOU RHYME, HAVE A GOOD REASON – AND MAKE IT PERFECT
I would guess that your favorite picture book from childhood rhymes. Rhyme is catchy, great for language development for youngsters, and fun to write. But if you are going to use it in your picture book manuscript, you need to be careful.

First of all, it is easy to get caught up in the rhythm and rhyme and meter of your text and not focus on the story. The story MUST come first. It has to be central. If it works in prose (and it isn't a bad idea to try writing it in prose to be sure the story is solid), it might be best to leave it that way.

Secondly, picture book editors today have no patience whatsoever for lazy or slant rhyme, meter that is off (even slightly), or inconsistent poetic structure. If you are going to submit a rhyming picture book, make sure the rhyme and meter is perfect, and that your rhymes are interesting and fresh.

Well, I hope that was a good start. Next week's lesson – part two – will focus on beginnings, page turns, endings, and audience (and possibly anything else that comes to mind between then and now).

And my promise above? Here are what are considered the two very best craft books on writing picture books.(I have read both, and they are worth their weight in gold)

Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul

The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books by Linda Ashman NOTE – this book is only available in ebook form.

Comments? Questions?

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby yvonblake » Sat Apr 23, 2016 10:19 am

Thanks, Joanne. I'm looking forward to see what you've learned.

I've been considering writing a children's picture book. (and I've been reading many of them recently to my grandkids) I can see how they could be harder to write than books for older people. I'm learning which ones the kids like better, and which one I prefer reading over and over. (not always the same books) I think there has be a balance of both to be marketable.

I've noticed that the favorites usually have fun sounds or repeated words. They also usually make us smile or laugh. A sub-story in the illustrations is a plus, although as you said, that's usually out of the writer's hands.

:thankssign

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby Laurie » Sat Apr 23, 2016 10:27 am

Ooh, I hope all of our children's writers see this great lesson! :)

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Apr 23, 2016 12:37 pm

yvonblake wrote:Thanks, Joanne. I'm looking forward to see what you've learned.

I've been considering writing a children's picture book. (and I've been reading many of them recently to my grandkids) I can see how they could be harder to write than books for older people. I'm learning which ones the kids like better, and which one I prefer reading over and over. (not always the same books) I think there has be a balance of both to be marketable.

I've noticed that the favorites usually have fun sounds or repeated words. They also usually make us smile or laugh. A sub-story in the illustrations is a plus, although as you said, that's usually out of the writer's hands.

:thankssign

Thanks for stopping by, Vonnie!

Repetition is a key aspect to a lot of picture books - because it allows the kids to "read along" and predict what will happen next. Another reason rhyme is fun and popular (despite my warning above).

And reading picture books (especially recent ones) is a great way - and critical, in my and many others' opinions - to learn to write them. And yes, humor is very popular - I talk about that a bit in my next lesson.

And that balance IS critical - I talk about THAT next week too, a little, when I talk about audience.

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Apr 23, 2016 12:38 pm

Laurie wrote:Ooh, I hope all of our children's writers see this great lesson! :)


Thanks, Laurie! You're sweet. :)

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby CatLin » Sat Apr 23, 2016 5:07 pm

I've already learned a lot! I didn't realize what an art picture book writing was. Leaving room for the illustrator to "complete" the story is something I never would have thought of.

I attempted writing a "picture book" for the FW Light challenge a while back, and I just pulled it up the draft to see what I had written in light of your lesson. I still like it, and I've always had it in the back of my mind to finish it some day. Looking forward to next week!
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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Apr 23, 2016 7:47 pm

CatLin wrote:I've already learned a lot! I didn't realize what an art picture book writing was. Leaving room for the illustrator to "complete" the story is something I never would have thought of.

I attempted writing a "picture book" for the FW Light challenge a while back, and I just pulled it up the draft to see what I had written in light of your lesson. I still like it, and I've always had it in the back of my mind to finish it some day. Looking forward to next week!


It really is a completely different kind of writing. Glad you are learning - and have something to work from :) The make room for the illustrator thing is one of the first things I learned when I started studying picture book writing - but it is one of the hardest to master, I think. You want to be sure YOUR story gets through, so you lay it out just as you want to see it - but it isn't just yours. It's the illustrator's too. And you need to get the message across, but still give the illustrator license to add her vision.

One thing I like to do is try to read some published picture books while ignoring the illustrations - to see how it was constructed WITHOUT the pictures - if the story is still complete. Sometimes, it isn't. Typing out a published picture book is also an interesting learning experience. I've done that for at least a dozen of them (and sometimes cut and pasted them into a picture book "dummy") to see how they work without illustrations. Have learned LOTS that way. (I talk about dummies a bit next week, by the way).

Thanks again, Cat!

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby yarra » Sun Apr 24, 2016 7:52 am

Thanks, Joanne, for this excellent first lesson. A picture book is something I have considered doing but not yet attempted. I like your suggestions about trying to read a picture book without the pics and the cut and paste idea.
I'll be interested in hearing your suggestions on finding the right illustrator, because I have fairly definite likes and dislikes in terms of illustration styles.
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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby Shann » Sun Apr 24, 2016 10:19 am

As children's books is my favorite genre to both read and write, I think this is an awesome lesson with so many excellent points. The information about the illustrator is great too and not something everyone realizes. Writing for kids is definitely difficult. I find them to be one of the most honest audiences out there! Of course, there's also the fine line between writing to the kids AND to the adults who are the ones selecting and buying the book. I look forward to your next lesson as well. You did a fantastic job on this one! :superhappy :thankssign
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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Sun Apr 24, 2016 2:47 pm

yarra wrote:Thanks, Joanne, for this excellent first lesson. A picture book is something I have considered doing but not yet attempted. I like your suggestions about trying to read a picture book without the pics and the cut and paste idea.
I'll be interested in hearing your suggestions on finding the right illustrator, because I have fairly definite likes and dislikes in terms of illustration styles.
Blessings, Ellen


Hi, Ellen! :)
Reading picture books without the illustrations is SO eyeopening. How much the author had to trust the illustrator sometimes floors me (and I wonder if I could even do it LOL).

As far as selecting an illustrator, if you are going the traditional publishing route, that isn't even an issue you get to tackle. In general, picture book authors (and ALWAYS, debut picture book authors) have no say in who their illustrator is. Many don't see the illustrations until the book is done, though SOME may be able to make a couple suggestions which may or may not be follower.

If you are talking self-publishing, obviously, that's a different issue. The thing is, picture books are VERY expensive to create (because of the color, etc), so I am not sure how lucrative a project it would be. (aka, I have NO knowledge or experience in that area!)

Anyhow - thanks for the encouragement! Looking forward to sharing the second lesson with you NEXT weekend :)

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Sun Apr 24, 2016 3:06 pm

Shann wrote:As children's books is my favorite genre to both read and write, I think this is an awesome lesson with so many excellent points. The information about the illustrator is great too and not something everyone realizes. Writing for kids is definitely difficult. I find them to be one of the most honest audiences out there! Of course, there's also the fine line between writing to the kids AND to the adults who are the ones selecting and buying the book. I look forward to your next lesson as well. You did a fantastic job on this one! :superhappy :thankssign


Thanks, Shann! And yes, those kids are certainly honest :)

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby Sibermom65 » Mon Apr 25, 2016 8:34 pm

I have a picture book in mind, but the illustrations are what makes the story come together. So how do I handle the problem of the illustrator so that the story I want to tell happens?

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby Shann » Mon Apr 25, 2016 9:04 pm

I self-published my first picture book in 2013. I can't draw stick figures and had a hard time finding an illustrator who was in my price range. Thankfully, I teamed up with fellow FW, Rachel. We did everything via email. She'd send sketches, get my input, then add color.

I just kept asking people if they'd be interested. We came to a great agreement where I offered her a small fee upfront, then she received so much money for each book that sold. We both were allowed to buy books at cost and sell them for whatever we wanted. She did listen to a lot of my input. For the most part, I was flexible. I wanted the book as a present for family members and I used family names. I shared pictures of those people and she interpreted them into her drawings. She also used her kuds' images in the books too so it was neat for both families.

I think I sold about 250-300 books in all, which I was delighted with since I didn't do any serious marketing. One thing I wanted in the illustrations was a little bug hiding on the pages. She created him and helped me come up with his name too. I've gotten quite a few great comments on it. My books cost me (depending on how many I ordered at once, shipping was cheaper the more I ordered) between $4-5 each, and sold for $7 for a 5x7 paperback(maybe a bit bigger, it was a standard size), full-color 32 page book.

I hope my experience helps those looking for illustrators. I want to find one for my next book since Rachel is busy with her own books now. I've dreamed of going the traditional way, but am terrified to do so with my Wrigley stories.
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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Mon Apr 25, 2016 9:23 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I have a picture book in mind, but the illustrations are what makes the story come together. So how do I handle the problem of the illustrator so that the story I want to tell happens?


One thing you can do is write a note in the very beginning, giving your vision for the book. That is generally accepted - as long as you aren't too detailed, and still leave room for the illustrator's creativity. If you are self-publishing, of course, it is another issue - because YOU are the one in control of all aspects. Traditional publishing, though, has more of it out of your hands.

Is this what you are asking? I hope I understood the question :)

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Re: Writing for Children - Picture Books Part 1

Postby itsjoanne » Mon Apr 25, 2016 9:26 pm

Shann wrote:I self-published my first picture book in 2013. I can't draw stick figures and had a hard time finding an illustrator who was in my price range. Thankfully, I teamed up with fellow FW, Rachel. We did everything via email. She'd send sketches, get my input, then add color.

I just kept asking people if they'd be interested. We came to a great agreement where I offered her a small fee upfront, then she received so much money for each book that sold. We both were allowed to buy books at cost and sell them for whatever we wanted. She did listen to a lot of my input. For the most part, I was flexible. I wanted the book as a present for family members and I used family names. I shared pictures of those people and she interpreted them into her drawings. She also used her kuds' images in the books too so it was neat for both families.

I think I sold about 250-300 books in all, which I was delighted with since I didn't do any serious marketing. One thing I wanted in the illustrations was a little bug hiding on the pages. She created him and helped me come up with his name too. I've gotten quite a few great comments on it. My books cost me (depending on how many I ordered at once, shipping was cheaper the more I ordered) between $4-5 each, and sold for $7 for a 5x7 paperback(maybe a bit bigger, it was a standard size), full-color 32 page book.

I hope my experience helps those looking for illustrators. I want to find one for my next book since Rachel is busy with her own books now. I've dreamed of going the traditional way, but am terrified to do so with my Wrigley stories.


Sounds like it was a neat experience, Shann! Thanks for sharing that end of the process :) (and don't be afraid to at least TRY traditional publishing! Worst case, you're exactly where you are right now :D)

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