'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 16 April 2011

Guest Post: Writing Picture Books - it's not as easy as it looks

Dr Virginia Lowe, author and founder of Create a Kids' Book, tells us about the process of writing picture books...

It seems that when most people think of writing for children, they think of picture books. This is probably because picture books are the type of children’s literature they encounter most frequently, reading them aloud to their own children or to playgroup, kindergarten or primary school classes. In most cases, fortunately, it’s not because they think it will be easy to write them because they are so short. (Though very occasionally I receive a story with the cover note that ‘I was waiting at the swimming class, and put together this story’ or ‘I had a spare Saturday afternoon so thought I’d write a children’s book.’)

 It isn’t easy to write picture books. Despite them having ideally only 500 words or fewer, it is remarkably hard to tell the story – and remember that the illustrations will have to carry half the narrative as well. This is the aspect that most writers, being word people, find the most difficult to grasp.

It is quite like writing a poem (and I don’t mean it has to rhyme). When you write a poem, you need to be as succinct as possible, and play with the words until they are in exactly the right positions. A poem has to sound lyrical, even look good on the page, as well as containing a message. Similarly the picture book text has to sound perfect read aloud. This is how most picture books are used, so it has to be polished and polished until the author (and anyone else she ropes in) can read it aloud without stumbling, and with the words a delight to listen to. (We often suggest reading it aloud onto a recording device, then playing it over in the car. If you listen over and over, words that are not quite right will leap out at you).

We advocate making a storyboard, even for those with no intention of doing the illustrations. In fact, unless you are a professional artist or graphic designer, it’s probably better that you don’t attempt the pictures. Generally speaking, the publishers will team a new author with a well known illustrator, so that they have one familiar name at least to sell the book on. But making a storyboard reminds writers that there will be pictures to carry the story as well – and that the pictures can tell the reader-listener a lot that will then not have to be put into words.

The storyboard also shows how the story will divide into the 32 pages which are the standard for picture books in Australia. You can even cut this storyboard up, and make a little zigzag book, so you can see how the pages will turn, what will be revealed on the next one. Page turns are an important tension-making device in picture books.

Unless you have a real ability with rhyme – it seems to come naturally to the favoured few – it is best that you avoid verse stories. Certainly Dr Seuss and Pamela Allen sell really well. In fact the Seuss books are the standard picture book for many – they are remembered so fondly from their own childhood. But it is true that children’s editors’ hearts drop when a verse picture book comes across their desk. This isn’t because rhyming texts don’t sell – they certainly do. It is because so few people can write them successfully, and even the good ones need much more work than prose.

It is certainly not a matter of finding a handful of words that rhyme, then sticking them on the ends of lines and calling it a poem. I’ve even had people tell me that they woke up one morning with the story all there in their heads, all in rhyme. When I asked one woman ‘You like writing poetry do you? And who’s your favourite poet? Whom do you read?’ she replied ‘Read? Poetry?’ as if she was not aware that it had been written before, and certainly hadn’t thought of reading it for herself. Her story was just as badly written as one would expect.

To submit your story to publishers, you write it straight through. They don’t want the storyboard – though you can give the page breaks if you feel it adds to the overall feeling of the work. Some notes on the illustrations may be essential – for things that are not told in the words. Something like ‘there is a subplot of the cat playing with the toy mouse in the background’ or ‘this is told in the “voice” of the yabby – who cannot hear, only feel vibrations’. Sometimes you need a comment like this so that the words make sense to the person who reads your submission from the slush pile.

However, basically you have to leave it to the illustrator. Being visually experienced, they will think of many aspects which hadn’t occurred to you, and are superior to the way you had imagined the pictures. It’s collaboration between both – and you share the royalties – so you must let the illustrator make their own decisions. For instance, I often get grandmothers saying ‘but he must have red hair and freckles, so he looks like my grandson!’ But unless this colouring is vital to the story, the artist will use whatever model he/she chooses.

What you have to remember is that you have to get your story past the reader of the slush pile first, before it gets to the editor’s desk, and long before it reaches the illustrator. So you have to have it as perfect as it can be. The big publishers have hundreds of manuscripts come in, and unfortunately they are just looking for a way of making the pile smaller. They are looking for an excuse to throw your manuscript out. And poor spelling or grammar, or a shoddy presentation, are quite sufficient to have it rejected, however brilliant the concept.

Once upon a more wealthy time, publishers would pounce on something that ‘had potential’ and allocate an editor to work with the writer until it reached a publishable standard. This no longer happens. You will get allocated an editor when you’ve been accepted, but they won’t expect to do work like correcting punctuation, grammar or spelling.

This is why it is vital to have someone knowledgeable read your work, before you send it in. Someone whose English is impeccable, for instance. If it is a professional who also knows how picture books work, that’s even better. This is where manuscript assessment (or critique) agencies come into their own. They will help you polish it to a brilliant shine, showing off your wonderful concept in a way that will at least get it off the slush pile, and onto the Editor’s desk. Most of the state writers’ centres have an assessment service, and there are a number of private ones as well. Check out their websites to make sure they will do the sort of job you are needing.

Only a very small proportion of the submitted stories actually reach publication. Of course it might be you – we hope so! But you need all the help you can get!

Dr Virginia Lowe has a PhD in children’s literature, and has been a judge for the CBCA Book of the Year Award. She studied her son and daughter’s responses to books, from birth to adolescence, since published by Routledge as Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell. For the past fifteen years, she has run the manuscript assessment agency, Create a Kids’ Book – workshops, e-courses, mentoring and a free monthly bulletin – createakidsbook.com.au.