Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 5

Maybe I should clarify what a picture book actually is and how it will be used.

There are many kinds of children’s books illustrated with pictures – stories with words; wordless stories; narrative non-fiction (for example, the life-cycle of a particular animal that has been worked into a story); counting, alphabet, time, colour recognition; works of art; graphic novels; non-fiction; board-books; books that link words to pictures to aid spelling and reading skills, and more. They are produced for a full range of ages from babies to young adults.

Picture books (also called picture book stories, picturebooks, picture storybooks or picture story books) are for shared reading, for children who are mainly 7 years old and younger. This means that words can be included that will sound good (which is so so important) when read by an adult and have a meaning which is obvious from their context (like ‘nubble’ – which may not be used in everyday speech), or which could be difficult for a young child to read them self (like ‘luxuriant’, or made up words such as ‘eruptublasted’ or ‘hyperboggulated’). While an adult is reading the text, the child will be reading the pictures.

Today, ‘picture books’ are never stories that can be read on radio and fully understood without reference to the pictures.

Books where the illustrations are included purely to break up the pages of text and give the reader a pleasant experience, are ‘beginner readers’ or ‘illustrated story books’.

The pictures in a ‘picture book’ add to and tell a significant part of the story. Occasionally, they can tell the whole story.

What picture books have you been reading? Have you tried writing the plot of each one in a sentence or two? For example:

The main character is introduced and given instructions, but they are not followed and there’s trouble, but the character returns home and is still loved. (Peter Rabbit)

Life is terrible for the main character, which is a problem. Something happens and life gets better, but the character acts and there’s disaster …but all is well at the end and life is great. (Cinderella)

Here are some other simple plot descriptions – see which books that you’ve read fall into one of these:

All is going well until… there’s a problem. The main character makes a response, but things get worse, then they solve the problem at the third attempt they succeed and life is good.

The main character has a ‘character flaw’ which is obvious by the things they do. Something happens and because of the flaw the situation gets worse, but the main character decides to change and all is good at the end.

There’s a problem right from the beginning and the main character tries to solve it, but things get worse. The problem is solved and life is good.

The main character has a good character feature, but other individuals cause the ‘hero’ to abandon this. There’s suffering for all until the hero (main character) returns to their original nature which is now recognised as beneficial, and the other individuals give up their demands for the hero to change.

There are other plans, but a large number of popular picture books do fit one of these plots!

It may be useful to base your story on one of these models …but don’t try to write all the words yet – just list what ‘events’ happen and how the main character reacts to each one.

Peter Taylor

Friday, May 26, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 4

In this series of posts on writing for children I hope to help you develop your own picture book story in a way that will give it the best possible chance of acceptance by a traditional publisher.

Do you have some ideas for a story? What will your story be about—no, not …about a mouse that… or …a boy who… What will it REALLY be about?

Picture books normally have a theme that helps the child reader to make sense of their world and discover how it works, how to fit in and how to get the most out of life.

Examples of universal themes include:

  • You will always be loved by your parents
  • The value of friendship
  • How to love
  • How to compromise
  • Happiness through sharing
  • When fed lemons, make lemonade
  • The value of honesty

...And I'm sure you can think of many more.

The theme of your story will be its foundation, its soul and life-force. And the story will be an outer layer wrapped around the theme, explaining the world emotionally. The theme could be described as the moral or meaning of the story, or what will be learned.

A story can have more than one theme.

You may choose a theme or themes as a starting point for your story, or the theme(s) only become clear during the planning and plotting …or even after a few drafts have been completed and you’re into editing.

At whatever time you decide on or discover the theme or themes, your story will be the showcase, and so the theme(s) tell you what belongs to your story and what doesn’t ...therefore, as you plot and edit, most scenes, characters, dialogue and images in your story should reflect one of your themes.

You can write an entertaining story without a universal theme …but it’ll never be considered a ‘great’ or ‘significant’ story because the reader won’t gain inspiration or learn anything about the world.

Theme is what people will talk about when they describe or discuss your story—it’s what makes people buy copies. It’s what sales people look for, and they have a voice in the acquisition process.

The theme is why the story exists and should be read (though you need to entertain as well)…


…you must never tell the reader what this theme or meaning is. NEVER write: ‘…and so always remember what Barry Bunny learnt: you must always tell the truth!’ This is a sermon. It’s didactic. It’s preaching, frowned upon—the current belief in publishing being that people don’t want to be preached to, told the moral or how to behave.

Theme needs to be like sugar dissolving in and becoming invisible among the other ingredients of a baked story cake.

Children are smart. If your story is well written and illustrated, the theme will be obvious from the characters' actions, reactions and dialogue - just make sure that it comes across is a worthy theme. You don’t want children to take from your story that ‘the winner is the person who makes the biggest threats’.

In the next post we will look at plotting and story structure. In the meantime, I hope you keep noting ideas and possibilities and remain open-minded as to what you may add or discard later.

Peter Taylor

Monday, May 22, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 3

In Part 2 of this series of posts on writing picture books for children aged about 3-6 years old, I suggested that you note particular properties of recent and acclaimed examples. But I hope that you enjoyed reading each of them, too.

Let’s think about story and what readers and purchasers will want from your book. First and foremost I believe they seek experiences that will grip their heart and mind through emotional connection. As a writer, you have to engage the reader emotionally. They must feel something. Emotions and feelings should be the lifeblood of your story …but not just one emotion. A whole range of emotions. A rollercoaster ride of emotions.

Emotional engagement is the most compelling reason we choose and continue to read any book throughout our life.

The easiest way to encourage a child to connect with a picture book is to make your story about someone—a main character. Give the character a name to help the connection. 

As this main character is loved, solves a problem, makes mistakes and errors of judgement, interacts with others, faces disaster and everything turns out alright at the end, the child reader sees themselves as the hero or has empathy with the main character who is ‘just like me’ or ‘could be me’. The main character of a picture book is never an adult. The illustration of the main character will depict them 2 years older than the average reader. 

Children are clever. If the story features an animal as a main character, the child understands that it represents a child just like them. If a baby duck wanders from the family and the parent hunts for it, the child reader (who reads the pictures while the story is told) recognises that in the same way they are loved by their own parent who will similarly hunt for them if they get lost.

If a story is only about a child going to grandma’s house or somewhere and having a lovely time, it’s not really a story at all. It’s just a series of events or anecdotes. 

We are eager to keep reading and turn each page of a story (any story for any age of reader) to find out what happens next. The story will be a series of actions and reactions and at each point there will be a tension. This tension will be caused by what outcome we hope for vs what we fear may happen …and we read on to discover the consequences, either good or bad.   

The simplest definition of a story is probably:

Someone wants something and has a hard time getting it.

This implies that there is trouble. Problems to be overcome. Mem Fox says that ‘Only trouble is interesting’.

Who is your main character?
What do they want? Why? What are consequences if they fail to get what they want?
Why can’t they instantly have what they want? What’s the problem?
What or who will make it difficult for the character to achieve their goal? Really difficult!! If the story was about a duckling getting lost, she wouldn’t just walk in the opposite direction. That would be too easy to find her. Perhaps she would fall down a drain, or get washed over a waterfall…

Keep thinking about your story and note down a range of ideas and possibilities. Stay open minded.

I’ve much more that may help you that I'll post on this blog. We’re only just starting. It takes a lot of time, consideration and multiple re-writes to create publishable stories and I look forward to sharing tips and devices that are used by the best writers in the business.

Peter Taylor

Saturday, May 13, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 2

If you are following this series of posts, the chances are that you have already written or started writing a picture book story, or that you are thinking about writing one. And I am concentrating on improving your chances of having the book traditionally published. Traditional publishers want to make money from your book. They think they know what will be most popular with buyers and readers. What makes a best selling book for a publisher is also likely to make a self-published book well liked.

While there are industry expectations and norms, which I'll discuss in future posts, each publisher has a few preferences of their own. Part of your job as a writer who wants to be published is therefore researching publishers to discover what each one likes best - because there's no point in sending a 700 word story to a publisher who only creates books that have less than 600 words.

Analyse every picture book you can find for the same readership as your stories, 20 or 50 or more, and make notes. Make sure that most of these books have been released over the last 4 or 5 years (not as reprints of older books). It's particularly useful to hunt out the books that have at least been shortlisted for an award. In Australia, where I live, the Children's Book Council and Australian Speech Pathologists organisations have annual Book of the Year Awards, as do other bodies, and I always check out the winners, runners up and the books that nearly made the podium. These show current editors’ tastes. 

You'll quickly discover that picture books are usually 24 or 32 single page surfaces including the title and legals. Some pages can be used as flyleaves and paste-downs if the text is short.

For your research in each book, I recommend:

  • Note the title
  • Write out all the text with what words go on which page
  • What reader age is the book most suited to? (The main character is usually portrayed about 2 years older than the expected child reader.)
  • Who or what is the main character? How and on what page are they introduced? What is likable about them or what problem do they have - why do we want to follow them through the story?
  • Describe what the illustrations show on each page - particularly actions. Categorise them like clips of a movie, noting if the picture is a distant shot showing the setting, a medium distance shot showing action or a close up showing emotion.
  • What emotion(s) are shown on each page by the illustration or the dialogue?
  • Is there something on the page that encourages or forces you to turn over to the next - it could be an illustration of someone or an animal walking out of the picture (where are they going, what will happen to them? Turn over to find out!), or someone having a problem or doing something (what are the consequences?), or are the words open ended, eg ...and then... - so we want to know what happens next.
  • Count and note the total number of words 
  • Note the name of the publisher
  • Note the year or date of first publication

You'll discover the word count limit for each publisher, if they tolerate slang, if the text includes long or unusual 'made up words' or not, and much much more. Some publishers don't publish books with talking animals, or over 500 words, or with words that rhyme...

Each publisher has their own style of book - their own brand. No matter how famous you are as an author or illustrator, how many millions of books of yours a publisher has sold, they may still not publish you're wordless sketchbook if they consider that style to be too dissimilar to the books that they're well known for.

So, you are searching for publishers who print books ‘just like yours’ – length, style, age-range... or you will write and edit your text to suit as many publishers as possible, or you will modify your text according to which publisher you send it to. One of my unpublished stories has a platypus as a main character ...but I may change it to an otter if it is sent to American publishers who only publish stories about animals that live wild in the USA.

In Part 3 I'll start to discuss what makes a publishable story.

Enjoy your research

Peter Taylor

Part 1 of this series can be found at How to Write a Picture Book - Part 1