TOP 10 TIPS FOR PICTURE BOOK WRITERS
Creating picture books for kids is at the heart of what I do as a writer. Since I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now, you might guess that I’ve learned a lot of useful storytelling tools along the way.
Why keep it to myself?
So here it is: my ‘top 10’ list of writing-picture-book tips culled from all those conferences, books, courses, workshops, mentorships, and plain old trial-and-error discoveries as I worked it out on the page.
- Write big or go home! Let your first draft be as large as it needs to be to gather up all the ingredients for your story to be: setting and characterization details, plot twists, wordplay, dramatic dialogue, and so on. Writing ‘big’ gives you a lot to choose from as you go through the revision process, which is basically paring down your manuscript to the low word count—no more than 500 words—required for today’s picture book while utilizing the very best of the plot, setting, language and characterization choices you created in that very first, big, fat draft.
- Write with rich language: strong, vivid verbs; specific nouns; imaginative adverbs and adjectives. Utilize the five senses whenever possible, in your descriptions and actions. Cast sentences in an active, not passive, manner. (Example: “she was walking out the door” versus “she stomped/tiptoed/shuffled through the door”.)
- Write from a young child’s point of view, not an adult’s perspective…easier said than done!
- Make every word count. Arrange word order in your sentences to maximize read-aloud-ability. Yes, you should read your manuscript aloud as you are writing and revising. Better yet, ask someone else to do this so you can listen actively for any potential tongue-twisters or awkward rhythms.
- While picture books are simple stories, they should be complete stories. In becoming short, it’s easy to short change a narrative element or two. Make certain that setting, characterization, rising action, climax and plot resolution are part of the mix. A few key questions for starters: does your main character have a problem to solve? Does he or she solve it with minimal assistance from a grown-up? Does he or she grow from beginning to end? Is there a clearly defined beginning, middle and end?
- Plug in picture potential. Remember that it’s a book that an illustrator will be asked to make pictures for, so give him or her plenty to work with: change of scenes, action, and characters whose images will arise from unique, compelling inner qualities, rather than superficial details about what they’re wearing. Give just enough visual clues to allow the artist’s imagination plenty of room to ignite, and illuminate your words in his or her own style.
- Pick up the pace. Picture book readers don’t have long attention spans. Keep things happening at a good clip. When you slow the plot, make sure it’s for a good reason.
- Drop a hook in your book. Your story first must appeal to your target reader, of course. But when it comes time to market your manuscript, you will have the advantage if you’ve found a way to tailor your story to include a tie-in to a curriculum topic (example: math); a theme that will appeal to a type of consumer (example: dog owner); a holiday (example: Valentine’s Day); etc. Besides the fabulous writing and picture potential, give the editor as many other reasons as possible to say ‘yes’ to your project.
- Show, don’t tell. I know, I know…a cliché, but one that is especially true for picture books.
- You gotta have heart! Young children need to relate to the heroine or hero of your story cognitively and emotionally. Let your main character resonate with them so much that they are truly invested in the story. Let them laugh, worry, cheer on, get angry and rejoice in the main character’s eventual triumph. Sweet or silly, soothing or scary, make your story emotionally satisfying—and the picture book crowd will want to read it again and again.
What tip did I forget here? Do you have any special bits of advice you’d like to share with other writers? Please leave your comments below. Let’s get the conversation started!
Meanwhile, wishing you as always, Happy Writing!