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Picture Book Secrets
"Musings" - February 2008
by Margot Finke
There is a big myth out there in the ordinary world. It says writing a picture book is easy – a snap! We’ve all heard a doting mother exclaim, “My little Ralph always does the cutest things. I’m going to write a picture book about them.” And she does: sending it off to languish in a slush pile, waiting for some poor assistant editor to cringe over.
I know you readers are far smarter than that doting Mom. You understand that writing a picture book takes special writing know-how: a flair for choosing perfect words, the same way an artist knows how to chooses the perfect colors. Writing a picture book is all about painting word pictures: a marriage between artwork and writing. When these two talents come together, they make a delightful book children beg you read to them, again-and-again.
Look below for the secret clues to writing a really wonderful picture book:
Checklist for Writing Picture Books:
- CONFLICT: The main character needs to be in conflict with something or someone for the story to grip small readers. Have some problem that bothers, or gnaws, or leads to trouble. The hero/heroine gets to solve the problem over the course of the story. The solving is the meat in your story
- DIALOGUE: Kids like realistic fast action dialogue. It brings things up close and personal.
- READ lots of picture books. Ask your librarian to point you in the direction of classics, as well as those published in the last couple of years.
A Good Way to Plot a Picture Book:
- Something happens to someone
- this leads to making a goal
- that needs a plan of action
- forces try to stop the main character
- he moves forward because there is a lot at stake
- things get as bad as they can
- he learns an important lesson
- when he is offered the prize he had sought so hard, he has to decide whether to take it on not
- in making this final decision he satisfies a need created by something in his past
The 5 "C" rules for writing compelling fiction:
- CHARACTERS: both you and the reader care about
- COMPLICATIONS: something happens: crises, conflict
- CHOICES: your character makes
- CONFLUENCE: tie it all together at the end
- CONCISE: make the writing tight (don't waffle on about things that don't move the plot forward)
Prune out those overused words that will not be missed:
Such as: just, that, seemed, suddenly, felt like, some, nice, very (add some of your own to this list).
Search Out Active and Powerful Verbs and Evocative Adjectives.
Because of the word restrictions (1, 000 or less – preferably a lot less), every word you choose must earn its keep. Weak or ho-hum verbs will not do. Use your Word Thesaurus (Shift F7) to find verbs that shout action, reek of power, and paint an active word picture in your reader’s head. Make sure your verbs fit the actions. Verbs do rule!
Choose adjectives the same way you would choose a valuable gem. They must resonate with clarity and sparkle. Forget: nice, happy, good, bad, and other dull and overused adjectives. Exchange them for: pleasurable, overjoyed, exceptional, or ghastly. Make sure the adjectives you choose are the right descriptive words.
Tight Writing Is Mandatory:
“Picture Book” is a two-word description for a reason. It is a book that is 50% words and 50% illustrations: and it all must fit into 32 pages. This works extremely well, when the writer leaves a trail of clever word clues on every page. The artist uses these word clues to expand the story into many delightful illustrations that amplify the clues, and the rest of the story.
A Summary to Write By:
- Craft your story without wasting one word.
- Keep the plot simple
- Find powerful verbs and evocative adjectives.
- Use fun and humor – kids love that!
- HOOK your reader in the first paragraph.
- Limit the number of characters
- Always let your young POV (point of view) solve the problem
- Write in specifics. Young children do not grasp ephemeral ideas.
- Use only one POV (point of view) character.
- New writers usually work better in third person past tense.
- SHOW what happens, by the use of action scenes and sharp dialogue – Telling is a big yawn!
- Think of your story as a garden: prune hard, and treat unnecessary words and sentences like weeds – DIG THEM OUT!
- Plan your plot and writing, so you end up with approx 14-15 evenly spaced illustration opportunities.
- A 32 page picture book (the usual size) needs approx 14 – 15 illustrations.
Writing a really wonderful picture book is one of the hardest, trickiest things a writer can tackle. However, the satisfaction and pleasure you feel, when it is finally published, is worth every rejection, every rewrite, and all those obsessed hours you spent waiting beside your mailbox. YOU DID IT!
Some of Margot's favorite picture books: Other Musings on picture books: Broken Beaks: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer Writing Picture Books: The Basics The Cat in the Hat: Dr. Seuss Cork and Fuzz: Short and Tall: Dori Chaconas Don't Be Silly, Mrs. Millie!: Judy Cox Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown Grandpa for Sale: Dotti Enderle Guess How Much I Love You: Sam McBratney Jack of All Tales: Kim Norman Picture (Book) Perfect Jose! Born to Dance: Susanna Reich Llama, Llama Red Pajama: Anna Dewdney Mrs. Biddlebox: Linda Smith Olivia Forms a Band: Ian Falconer Searching for Sasquatch: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer There Is a Bird On Your Head! (Elephant and Piggie): Mo Willems Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak Window Music: Anastasia Suen
HAPPY WRITING MATES!
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