Writing picture books
I have been meaning to write this post for AGES! Various people have asked me, via Twitter and sometimes when I’m out and about, where to start when writing picture books for children. I even got asked about it by a passenger on a train recently ~ always a pleasant surprise and lovely when people take such an interest. I’ll start by saying, I am no expert on this… who is? … and there’s no right and wrong way. But there are certain things you can do to increase your chances of success with an agent or publisher, and to produce something which can stand proudly alongside all the other thousands of picture books that are out there at any one time. So, here are a few pointers that will hopefully help you on your way…
Research ~ I started writing picture books when my son was a baby, and spent a year researching it before I putting pen to paper. I read a wonderful book: ‘Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books for Publication’, by Berthe Amoss and Eric Suben. There are lots of books on writing for children, and I would recommend reading at least one before you begin. I also read a lot… and I mean A LOT… of picture books. I even broke them down into elements. Which brings me to…
Asking questions ~ when you read a picture book, ask yourself questions: Why do I like this? What makes it work? Is there much dialogue? How many characters are there? What makes the characters attractive? How will children relate to this? What will make grown ups want to buy it? Does it have a message, and, if so, is it explicit or implicit? Is it funny? Is it original or quirky? Is the language descriptive? Is there a lot of action? Does it have a strong sense of rhyme and rhythm? Are there multiple scene changes? How does the plot move forwards? Is there a crisis and is this resolved at the end? By asking these sorts of questions, you’ll discover what makes a good picture book work and be able to harness this in your own writing.
Your market ~ be sure who you are writing for. Picture books tend to be aimed at 0-2yrs, 2-4yrs, 2-6yrs, 3-6yrs. Clearly, the themes will be different according to the age you are writing for, as will the language you use and the ages of the characters if you have children in your story. Also, if you are writing for the younger end of the picture book market, you may envisage your book as a board or novelty book. For a board or novelty book, your word count may be less than 100. For the 2-6yrs bracket, you will be looking at somewhere between 500-1,000 words. Don’t forget though that adults are buying these books so they need to appeal to them too.
Originality ~ write with originality. Your own voice needs to shine through your writing, and if you are writing in the first person, your character’s voice needs to shine through. It’s fine to tackle familiar subjects… childhood fears, bedtime, sibling rivalry etc, but do so in an original way. Your writing and story has to stand out from the crowd.
Quality of writing ~ this is a kind of obvious one, but all the same, make sure your spellings, punctuation and grammare are correct. Don’t just rely on spellcheck either. Get someone else you can rely on to read your work through. Read it yourself, again and again. Print it out and read it. Also, read it out loud. It’s especially important for children’s picture books to have a sense of rhythm and for your story to sound fluid when read aloud – after all, the younger end of the age group they are aimed at (normally between 2 and 6 years) are going to have them read out to them, so they need to sound good.
Layout ~ layout for picture books is really important and there are a few reasons for this. Picture books tend to be between 24 and 32 pages, so it really helps to write in chunks, breaking the writing into 12 sections for a 24 page book, or 16 sections for a 32 page book. This isn’t an exact science as picture books tend to have some single page illustrations and some double page spreads, but it shows a publisher that you have given it some thought.Also, and this is REALLY important, it helps you when writing, by ensuring that you can visualise each page. Given that this is a picture book and each page will need illustrating, I can’t over-emphasise the importance of this. If you can’t visualise the chunks – or verses, as I like to refer to them – of the story you have written, then neither will a publisher!
Which publisher? ~ before you send anything off to anybody, get yourself a copy of ‘The Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ which comes out annually – the 2013 copy came out last week – I have mine (hee hee!) It is the writers’ bible. Completely indespensible! Not only does it provide a list of publishers and their website addresses and submission details (in some but not all cases) it also gives listings of agents. There are also loads of features written by children’s writers with really useful tips. Contributors this year include: Malorie Blackman, Lauren St John, Anne Fine, Lauren Child, Barry Cunningham… shall I go on? It’s a good ‘un and worth every penny of your £12 something. In addition to this, check out the publishers’ websites, see who else they publishe, what sort of things they like, whether they’re accepting submissions etc. Websites also have complete and up to date submission details, which you really must stick to, otherwise your work may never make it past the bin!
I’ve put together a three page information leaflet giving more details on the above, and some additional info. If you’d like a copy of this, please contact me via my website contact page here giving me your email address, and I’ll send you a copy.
In the meantime, happy writing and GOOD LUCK!
For details of my most recent books, follow the link to Amazon here.