Friday, September 11, 2009

Writing the Picture Book

Writing a picture book is not easy. Which is probably why I’ve always wanted to write one, kind of like wanting to climb Kilimanjaro or run a marathon—could I really do it?

For one thing, I’m wordy and I know it. Confining myself to the equivalent of writing child-friendly haiku to tell an entire story isn't my style. For another, I just don’t think I have the kind of whimsy that appeals to very young children. Not that I haven’t tried. My first attempt was a book based on an adorable litter of kittens. I called it This Little Cat and submitted it to about a dozen houses. To my astonishment, the book was taken seriously (I must have done something right!) and received personal rejections from all the head acquisitions editors I submitted to. But the letters were still rejections. Eventually This Little Cat went on to be rewritten and reworked as “The Cat Circus” a poem that was published in The Divine Feline, an anthology of cat stories, poetry, and artwork.

That project is quite a few years behind me now, but I’m thinking (uh-oh) of trying another one. I know a new manuscript is going to take a long time: getting those word choices “word perfect” is a challenge indeed. To help me get into picture book mode, every few months I like nothing better than going to the library to spend an afternoon reading my way through the children’s section (although they’ve just got to do something about those low shelves and pint-sized chairs…).

Several weeks ago while I was there I gathered up some of the books scattered on the tables. Right away two things struck me: most had been favorites of my own as a small child, and all were about animals; talking animals nonetheless. Among those I particularly enjoyed were Millions of Cats by Wanda Ga’g; The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, BunBun at Bedtime by Sharon Pierce McCullough, and Astro Bunnies by Christine Loomis. Like all good picture books, the stories were not only illustrated with care and imagination, but they held my interest from beginning to end as complete “plot lines” centered on charming and believable characters.

After several years of doing this kind of research, I’ve come to some conclusions about why so many picture book manuscripts are rejected:

1. Too many characters; side stories; subplots. Published picture books have page lengths that rarely, if ever, vary. Like all books, they’re printed in multiples of 4. Baby or board books can be as short as 12 “pages,” but the general rule for a picture book is 28 or 32 pages depending on end papers, etc. The longer, more text-driven “story book” can have 48 pages. Those pages have to be coherent and focused.

2. Too many words. The PB word count is short. 1500 words is really pushing it and heading for rejection. I suggest scaling back—way back. 250 to 500 words are about right. With picture book text, less is always more.

3. Don’t illustrate your own work even if you’re a professional artist. Simply send in your text typed in the exact same manuscript form as a 350-page novel. If you are a professional artist seeking to illustrate children’s books, submit your artwork to the publisher’s art director according to their guidelines.

4. At the same time, there is absolutely nothing wrong in making a “dummy” mock-up for your own purposes. In fact, you should! One quick way is to simply fold 8 pieces of paper in half, giving you a little booklet of 32 pages. Play, draw, write and see how your story and line breaks work against the pages. You can also get a good idea of where “double page spreads” will give an illustrator something to really illustrate.

5. Your words should always inspire your illustrator. With that in mind, you don’t need a whole lot of description, sometimes none at all. The pictures will take care of that for you. But your words you do choose must be picture-generators.

6. Should you rhyme? As a general rule, I know editors like to say “never,” but then you will see rhyming text everywhere picture books are sold or read. Like talking animals, it really “depends on what the animals are saying,” as one well-known editor once put it. I think this “rule” about discouraging rhyming text started because of the amount of doggerel coming over the transom. To create good, clever rhyme is an art, and a difficult one at that.

7. Stories about inanimate objects. Just—don’t.

8. Talking animals (again). Some editors say “no,” and I say “phooey!” with one exception: religious or praying animals. You have no idea how many manuscripts I have been given to critique or edit that have included religious animals. I find them weird and I think most editors do, too.

9. Moralizing. Would you like your next exciting romantic suspense to end with: “Okay folks, listen up: lying, cheating, stealing, and killing are bad things and will make your nose grow crooked…” You wouldn’t do it to an adult reader, so please don’t do it to a kid!

Tip of the day: Okay, go write the next great picture book and make me proud! Spend some time at the library re-reading your favorites and checking out new titles. If nothing else, you’ll have a wonderful “artist’s date” reliving some of the best moments of your childhood.

Next post: a special interview with picture book author Margo Candelario on her new book, Looking to the Clouds for Daddy.


Rachel Fenton said...

I'm not sure I could be as enthusiastic as you are for writing a picture book - having made dozens of mock-up ones for and with my daughter, and having read hundreds to her - I think I'm all out of stories for the little dudes. My daughter groans every time I start to make one up now - "you've already told me that one, but you called so-and-so blah blah blah in that one".

Ana - The Writer Today said...

Thank you for these tips. I have been wanting to write a children's book, something simple with a morale to it. So I think a picture book would fit right in with this. I have not even started anything because I want to write a novel first. This is where my challenge now lies.