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Writing Picture Books:
The Basics

"Musings" for September 2004

by Margot Finke

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If your passion is writing picture books, keep in mind that editors prefer text to be 1,000 words or less -- preferably a lot less. Read on for clues about what makes a memorable picture book.

Always Think Kid

If you have children still at the picture book stage, "thinking kid" is a snap. Watch and listen. Your kids and their playmates will present you with enough ammunition for a plethora of books. However, if your children have grown beyond picture books, think back to when they were small. What interested them? What made them giggle? Can you remember the kid shorthand they used when they talked? If not, volunteer at a grade school for a while. This will refresh your memory about all of the above.

Read! Read! Read!

Memorable picture books, the ones that are enjoyed from one generation to the next, are deceptively simple in style and execution. A lyrical flow infuses each page, and the words put instant pictures into the reader's head. Story lines captivate small minds. Ask your local librarian to point you in the direction of the timeless classics, as well as a range of more recent picture books. Reading these will help you absorb the fundamental bone structure of great picture books.

Choose Adjectives and Verbs the Way a Jeweler Selects Gems

Verbs -- strong and powerful verbs are a picture book writer's best friend. Strong active verbs help you craft text that grabs the young reader, and keeps their interest.

Adjectives -- don't fall for the idea that if one adjective is good, two more will work wonders. Like a jeweler choosing the perfect gems for a necklace, unearth adjectives that are perfect gems.

Look for great verbs and adjectives where they hang out -- your Thesaurus. Shift F7 brings up Windows Thesaurus. Roget's Thesaurus is another. Successful writers always keep a good Thesaurus handy. Combining wonderful adjectives, and action-oriented verbs, pushes you to the head of the picture book class.

Tight Writing Shows Rather Than Tells

What does tight writing and "show don't tell" really mean? It means don't waffle on with countless descriptions, or wander away from the main point of your story. Get to the action ASAP. And don't "tell" your reader what happened. Devise actions and reactions that "show" what happened and how the characters behaved. Dialogue, combined with actions and reactions, makes your story come alive. A lot of telling simply makes it DOA.

Is Rhyme and Meter Your Game?

Want to try your hand at a rhyming picture book? Then you'd better have a knack for meter and a way with rhyme Your rhyming story needs everything a non-rhyming picture book must have to make it work, plus an easy flowing meter, and rhyme that actually pushes the story forward. My experience tells me that meter is akin to musical pitch. Some people sing on key, and others can't hit those notes to save their lives. Meter is like that: you either have an innate ability for it, or you sweat buckets trying.

Make Writer and Illustrator a Team:

When writing a picture book, always think illustrations -- even if you illustrate your own writing. Illustrations make it unnecessary to include small details. Write tight, and leave clues for the artist to pick-up-on. Think of each verse or paragraph as an illustration in the making. So, included in those 1,000 words or less, should be approx 14-16 different illustration opportunities. The idea is to create delightful stories accompanied by magical illustrations.

Critique Groups and Online Message Boards Are the Way to Go

Beginning writers, and old hands at the game, benefit from being members of a good critique group. Critique groups all over the country support, encourage, and offer feedback to writers of all genres.

Join an online message board for children's writers. Ask if there are vacancies in any of the private groups that members have formed. An online board can also be an excellent source of helpful writing and publishing information. Other critique avenues include local face-to-face groups. Join the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), and check out the critique venues your chapter offers. Libraries and Colleges also list writer's groups that meet in person. There can be immense comfort and pleasure in sharing disasters and triumphs with fellow writers traveling the same bumpy road.

Message Boards:

For those who think a PB writing class would be helpful, here are two of the best.

Margot Finke also writes about picture books in her May, 2002 "Musings," "So You Want to Write a Picture Book?"

Happy Writing Mates.

Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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