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.
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.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.
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.