By Free Spirit’s Editorial Staff
From a distance, picture books seem very easy to write. The truth is they’re one of the hardest art forms to master. They’re all about evoking strong feelings and making a story come to life using minimal words. (They’re a bit like poetry in that respect.)
Many people are filled with ideas for picture books but might not have a clue where to start. Here are a few tips to get you pointed in the right direction.
- The most important thing you can do when preparing to write a picture book is read other picture books. This can’t be overstated. Read classics. Read new releases. Read a diverse range of authors and characters. Read with attention to how the story flows. Read with an eye for how the words fall on the pages. You can learn so much from the work of others. (For example, if your current picture book manuscript is 3,000 words long or more, that’s too much. You’ll find most picture books fall in the 500- to 800-word range—with some exceptions, but they’re rare.)
- Since you’re going to be reading picture books anyway, read them with children to see what they respond to. Funny words? Rhyme? Emotion between characters? If you don’t have easy access to children, stop by a story time at your local bookstore or library to observe.
- Remember as you write that the illustrations will—and should—do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to storytelling. “Show, don’t tell” is sage advice, but it’s especially applicable to picture books. You don’t have many words to work with—save them for what art can’t show.
- Consider an interactive component to the story. Children like when interesting questions are posed in the text or when they’re given a chance to verbally engage with the reader (call and response, for example). It’s fine if this doesn’t fit in with your idea for the book but do think of ways to keep the text vivid.
- Think visually as you write—what sort of pictures might accompany your words—but you don’t need to spell this out in your manuscript. Most publishers prefer to receive text only. When the time comes to decide what the art will look like, your publishing teams—editorial and creative—are here to help! Their expertise and experience, combined with your passion for your story or message, will lead to brainstorming that often yields better ideas than any one person would have developed alone.
- While you don’t need to prepare detailed art instructions, it’s good to think about where page breaks will come. Again, studying existing picture books can be a great way to get a feel for this. How many words are on a single page? How do the words on one page lead us to the words on the next?
- Sound and rhythm are very important when writing for young readers. Choose language that sounds good when read aloud. Also, be aware of vocabulary. Consider if the words you want to use are accessible to the age of your audience.
- Get to the “action”—whatever that may be—as quickly as you can. With limited space (few picture books exceed 32 pages), every moment counts. If you’re struggling with this, try jumping in mid-scene, or a whole scene later than you thought you’d start the story—even if it feels awkward to you. You might find a middle ground that’s just the ticket.
For additional information on writing picture books, check out these links:
- Kate Messner: Picture Book Math (and why you should write something new)
- Harold Underdown: Picture Book Manuscripts and Illustrations
We hope you found these tips helpful. If you have any additional questions, please leave a comment below. Our editorial team will post responses until December 10, 2018. Good luck!
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