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So You Want to Write a Picture Book?
"Musings" Archive for May 2002

by Margot Finke

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Your head is full of ideas, and you are keen to write them into a file titled, "Picture Book." What about the first line? How many words does it take to write a picture book? Is the word humongous too old? Should you write it in rhyme, or in prose?

Picture books (PB) come in many shapes and sizes, and for a variety of ages.

For PB writers, every word must count. Your Word Thesaurus will help you prune out all those tired, overused words. Find strong, sparkling, evocative replacements -- words that would offer an artist terrific clues for illustrations.

If your PB story runs to a single line or two, within a full-page illustration, you are writing for toddlers and younger. With this type of PB, the illustrations are what grab the child's interest and imagination. Unless your artwork is of professional quality, it is better to allow an editor to choose the illustrator. Use short simple sentences. Word count is low for these Picture Books -- some have fewer than 150 words.

Children of preschool age still rely on fun, lush and interesting illustrations. However, your story can show a slightly more complex aspect, yet keep a simple sentence structure. The illustrations sell these books. Word count is somewhere around the 150 to 300 mark, or slightly higher.

Kindergarten and grade one children enjoy having books read to them, so your plot, and the words you use for this age, can slide up a notch. The adult reading the story will explain any difficult aspect or words. Now your writing becomes more important. The vocabulary of this age group grows by leaps and bounds. They understand more words and concepts. This age does not completely rely on the illustrations to understand the story, so the artwork is sometimes smaller, to make room for more text. Yet overall, you still need to keep your plot and sentences simple. A 16 to 32 page PB is ideal, with anywhere from 500 –1,000 words.

Writing Picture Books for second and third graders offers you more scope. Many of these children can read for themselves. Avoid complex sentence structure. Humor is a plus. Your words take on added importance, so choose them with great care. There is no room for longwinded descriptions. Discover the art of painting word pictures. Offer the illustrator word clues he can pick up on when illustrating your story. Understand that less is more, when writing any PB. Zap those three ho-hum words, and find one terrific word that says it better. This age allows you to write a great, illustrated story, with approx. 1,000 to 1,500 words, in either 32 or 45 pages. I have to add, that a 1,000 word, 32 page PB is much easier to have published.

Word and page count is not set in stone. Different publishers go by different standards. As most have WebPages, be smart, and check out their information pages for specific requirements.

Whether writing for kids or adults, one thing is paramount – hook your reader early. Think about what makes your toddler giggle or your first grader laugh. Watch kids at play. Think kid! If you are writing a story, remember, it needs a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending. Keep to one point of view. (POV) Allow your POV character to grow and learn from his mistakes. Let him solve his own problems. Even the youngest child wants to identify with the main character and root for him/her.

Writing in rhyme needs all of the above, plus great natural rhyming, and a smooth, no- bumps meter. Some will disagree with me on this next point. However, I have always felt that if you weren't born with a natural talent for rhyme and meter, you will have a hard uphill slog to try and master it. Some people write wonderful prose, and others write terrific rhyming stories. My advice is to stick with what comes naturally and what you write best.

The rhyme needs to blend in as a natural part of the story. Choosing words just because they rhyme stands out like a pimple on the tip of your nose – it won't do! Meter is more complex. Grrrrrrrr!! It depends on a repetitive and measured syllable count, plus where you place those pesky, two and three syllable words. Getting meter right can tie you in knots. You either have a talent for it, or you must work darn hard at it.

Make your librarian into a friend. Ask her what books are popular. Take home and study some of the classic picture books and a few of the great picture books that have been published during the past two years. Dissect every aspect of the writing. Discover what makes these books work so well.

Join a critique group for PB writers, preferably one that has a few experienced authors. Critiquing the writing of others is a great learning experience. Having your own writing critiqued will expose your blind spots and offer you much needed feedback.

Now is the time to tell you the secret of many successful children's writers – don't rush the process. So what, if your critique group gives your story a thumbs up and you think it is ready to delight some lucky editor – WAIT! Like great wine, great writing needs tender loving care, plus time to rest and mature. Put your story aside for a few weeks. Begin some new writing. When you return to it, all sorts of small errors and areas you want to rework will jump out at you. Keep resting and reworking your piece until you know it is the best you can write. Only then will your story be ready to delight some lucky editor,

Happy writing, mates!

Margot Finke also writes about picture books in her September, 2004 "Musings," "Writing Picture Books: The Basics"

Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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