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

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 1

After life ‘challenges’ in recent months, this blog is now back in focus and I look forward to posting more regularly, first by providing a series on creating picture books.

How I wish that ‘get rich quick’ internet entrepreneurs wouldn’t perpetuate the myth that picture books, because they have so few words, can be written with ease by absolutely anyone in a couple of hours.

It would be wonderful if it were true.

Published authors recognise that of all genres of book, picture books are the most fiendishly difficult to write—they’re far harder to write successfully than novels for adults or older children.

Apprentice picture book writers are usually too easily satisfied with what they have written, they create works that are not ‘industry standard' and consequently more than 95% of texts never get published. When schools ask children to write a picture book text in a week or two, they cannot expect perfection – only a starting point.

You must be as professional as the most established creators. Mem Fox and other well-known authors who sell acclaimed books by the hundreds of thousands will often have spent 3 years or more refining the text of a single 300 word book before it is sent to publishers. 50 drafts would not be uncommon. En route to completing the 190 word best-selling book Where Is The Green Sheep?, Mem spent days, hour after hour working on another draft …another draft …another draft. It wasn’t finished in a year. If you were able to tap in to authors’ thoughts after their books are finished, I know that many would be muttering ‘I am never ever going to attempt to write another picture book’ …though they may almost immediately have an irresistible idea and start writing again. Why? Because there is no greater joy than creating a book that children adore.

I've been to innumerable talks by well-published experts, read text-books on the subject, paid for courses, talked to professionals, downloaded advice from websites, paid editors for appraisals of my own stories, and more. They all try to be as helpful as possible, but coming up with the right words in the right places is still a daunting task. 

Fortunately I managed to get it right for Once a Creepy Crocodile which was Shortlisted for the ‘Book of the Year 2015’ by Australian Speech Pathologists, so I hope I will be able to shorten the length of your apprenticeship and I will concentrate on providing advice for writing for traditional publishers such as Penguin and Scholastic who get books into bricks and mortar stores, libraries and schools and who pay you money. You do not have to pay a cent to be published by this kind of ‘Traditional Publisher’.

Are you still eager to write a picture book for publication?

Relax. You have a lot to learn and research.

The publishing industry works on a different time frame to everyone else. There is never a rush and lots more goes on behind the scenes than you'd ever imagine. They will want your story this year, next year or in 5 years’ time if it’s a good story - but you only get one chance to submit it to each publisher, so it needs to be the best it can be.

If you are a writer, you do not have to find or pay for an illustrator. A publisher will want freedom to organise for your words to be illustrated by an artist of their own choice. If you are unknown, they’ll probably choose one who is famous and with loyal fans and a track record for high sales. Their aim is for your story to make them money – all decisions are commercial.

But when you have completed and perfected your story, if you know a very famous illustrator who would like to illustrate it, when you send your words you can tell the publisher that they would like to be considered.

Get used to the fact that in traditional publishing, you’ll have no input into the illustration process. This is very very VERY hard for an author to accept, but it’s how the best and most loved books are usually created. An American art director I met said that she chooses illustrators to create what no one else would imagine from the words. You must leave space in your words for the illustrator to weave their own magic.

Nina Rycroft illustrated Once a Creepy Crocodile. I didn’t see any art and we had no contact until it was finished. Then I suggested a tiny change, but the publisher didn’t allow it. Nina was probably never told and maybe doesn’t know that. But I love what she’s done and her imagination. The words at the beginning say:

Once a creepy crocodile crawled toward a river bank,

He spied a baby brolga by a bottle-brush tree,

And his tail wagged and wiggled while he winked and grinned and giggled, saying

‘Please come and join me for afternoon tea.’

‘No!’ squealed Echidna. ‘Stop!’ croaked the tree-frog.

‘Run,’ cried Koala, ‘he’ll eat you, don’t you see?’

But the brolga danced and pranced in a trance toward the water saying,

‘Tea is very tempting – thanks for choosing me.’ ... ... ...

I imagined a cunning crocodile that was scary. Nina drew the croc in a Fred Astaire pose tempting the brolga with fancy dance moves, and the brolga responding as Ginger Rogers or any ballroom dancer. And it’s absolutely wonderful.


I imagined all the animals running away. Nina has depicted them all having a lovely tea party at the end (spoiler alert ...except for the snake that the crocodile eats). Not too scary for little children.

Does it matter that the illustrations are not as I imagined? No! They’re superb. It’s just not ‘my story’ – it has become ‘our story’, including the art director’s story.

When self-publishers pay illustrators (illustrators need to be properly paid at a sensible hourly rate – they have mortgages and the shops they visit require real money before handing over the goods) and the writer controls what is drawn, the book never reaches its full potential.

The next post will be on the first steps in story creation…

Hoping that I can help you

Peter Taylor