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.
Great advice, Abi – I know my limits, and can’t do the drawing thing, and admire anyone who writes successfully for children. But this look really comprehensive advice to me.
Oh thanks, Jo! It only scratches the surface really, but hopefully it’ll help to guide newer writers a little bit.
What a generous post, Abi. Clear, helpful and encouraging.
Ah, thank you, Jenny. Always a bit nervous about these kinds of posts because so many writers are more experienced than me. Thanks for the vote of confidence!
Not everyone who can do it can explain it, Abi – I’m surprised you aren’t already brimming with confidence!
Aw, thank you so much, Jenny :o))) x
Great advice! I haven’t seen “Writing and Illustrating Books for Children” before, so I’m off to check that out. So many books don’t touch picture books or make trite comments about simple sentences that aren’t actually true if you look at a few books.
Thanks, Beth! It’s a really useful book, an American publication but most of what they say applies across the board. Also, it was updated, in 2005, I think, so will probably have even more good stuff in it now.
Great post Abi…I have a question, Sarah Warburton’s illustrations are so perfect for Grub, so how did the two of you get together? Did you know each other or do the publishers decide on artists?
I’ve never thought of writing a picture book (I’m trying middle grade) it takes a great deal of talent to put together a wonderful story for a child that works and gets it all across in so few words!
Thanks, Lisa. It is REALLY hard writing picture books. I’ve angsted more over these than other things I’ve written for older children. Re. the illustrations, publishers tend to have a bank of illustrators who they use, and choose the appropriate one to suit the text and the voice of the characters etc – this is what happened with the Ruby and Grub books. Sarah is uber-talented, isn’t she? We’ve never met but we do follow each other on Twitter and FB!
Fantastic post, Abi. The workshop you did for my writing group on this topic was brilliant too! Thanks for sharing. x
Ooh, thank you Em :o) x
You’ve been so generous here with your advice. This is a blog post to tag for repeated reference. I have two queries. Firstly I’m never sure whether to submit the ms with the page demarcations noted or remove them for submission. I’ve been told that editors like to do that themselves.
The second query is about your blog. I can’t get Blogger to let me follow you on my blog reader system and would have missed this if I hadn’t seen it tweeted out. Do you know if there’s a way round this?
Aw, thanks Rosalind. I really appreciate that. Re. the ms page demarcations, I just leave a larger space between each section of text, so that it is clear to the reader that this is where I visualise the page ending. The publisher / reader can then see the story in the way you intended. They do manipulate this once they marry text with illustrations, but it’s still a good habit to get in to, as it gets you into the habit, as a writer of seeing your picture book as illustrated chunks of text… I hope I’ve explained this clearly! I have no idea why it won’t let you follow my blog, Ros. This isn’t something I’ve come acrossed before. If you click on the ‘Follow’ button on the right of my blog posts, you should (in theory) be able to subscribe. The other way would be through my facebook author page. I post links to my blog posts on here every Friday too, so you could get them this way. Hope this helps! Thanks again 🙂
Wow, what an interesting post. I have two children, so I’ve read my fair share of picture books and, though I know what I like and don’t like, I’ve never considered the intricacies of putting one together. Looks far more complicated than you’d think . . .
Thank you, Dan! It is a tad complicated actually. Soo much to consider when writing for those icklies… a lot of fun though 😉
Excellent post, Abi! To my mind, writing for young children is a bit harder than for adults. It may seem as if it would be a walkover, but with their short attention span, one needs to grab their interest immediately and keep them focused for that length of time. Pictures get that job done beautifully. Also, IMO, to be a children’s author, one’s inner child needs to be alive and well. I think you should do some workshops, if you haven’t done so already. This is really great material! Although I don’t lean towards this genre, I found it fascinating.
Aw, thanks, Nadine 🙂 What a fantastic response! I agree with you entirely, especially re. the ‘inner child’; that’s really important when writing for children. I do do workshops in schools, Nadine, and really really enjoy doing them, and I did a workshop for a writers’ group recently on writing picture books for children, and loved it. Would love to do more of them.