Do you have a good concept for a children’s picture book but don’t know where to start? Did you start writing a picture book but feel stuck?
The very first question you need to ask isn’t how to write a children’s picture book. Ask what. What is the story?
Do you have one?
For centuries, stories were told and retold to successive generations. They weren’t written down and there were no illustrations. Yet the story lived on even after the storyteller had passed. Why?
Tribal knowledge. It was committed to memory. The story is NOT the writing. It is not the illustrations; it’s actually not even the verbalization or act of telling. It’s in memory.
The story is its own existence. Writing it down, telling it verbally, or illustrating it, translates the story from memory to a medium of communication. Most picture books start by writing down those parts of the story that are best communicated with text. Rough illustrations, stick figures or thumbnails can fill in the rest of the story if you aren’t an illustrator.
Here are 10 considerations for your picture book writing:
1. TEXT LENGTH: Keep your picture book text to 1000 words or less if at all possible. Less is more. It’s deceptively hard to get it down to below 1000 words.
2. RESEARCH: Find some examples of books you like and study them. Why do they work? What is the rhythm of the text? Does it flow? Do you get stuck on any words?
3. READ ALOUD. Picture books are read aloud. Almost always. The words have to sing, flow, and be easy to read.
4. FUN. If a picture book isn’t fun, it won’t get read. Unread picture books aren’t talked about, passed around, or recommended and your future sales won’t happen.
5. SALES. IT’S ABOUT SALES: A children’s picture book is a product. Products have to sell. You’re not going to be there to read the book to each child that has your book.
6. WHO IS YOUR TARGET? Kids don’t buy books, parents, grandparents, guardians, and adult relatives buy books. And they aren’t going to buy a book they know they aren’t going to like. So while you may think you’re writing for the child – you are not. You are writing something that the adult will recognize as potentially fun for the child AND them. It’s an adult/child activity with the adult buying the book. They look for those books they can tolerate reading over and over…and over. The thought “Do I want to read this book 47 times or not?” is one of the questions an adult buying a children’s picture book will ask. Moving your book from the consideration pile to the buying, is going to happen if it’s fun to read. There are gorgeous picture books out there with phenomenal art that utterly fail in sales. Because the writing is bad, there isn’t enough story, or it’s just no fun to read.
7. RHYMING: Yep, here’s a tough one. There are a great many publishers that WILL NOT even consider a picture book if it rhymes. A great many agents eschew rhyming as well. Should you write in verse or prose? No one can answer that. What are you good at? I have a blog article (on the right) on this very subject where I cover it in-depth. Read that and see what’s best for you.
8. TARGET: Know your target age. Most picture books have a total age span of 2 years old to 8 years of age. Really good picture books can sometimes transcend that age of 8 but not often. The core of your audience is likely going to be 3 to 6 years of age.
9. LENGTH: The majority of pictures books are in page increments of 8 with 32 pages as the standard length. As many as 6 to 8 pages can be taken up with the intro color pages, title page, acknowledgements page and copyright page, etc. So keep that in mind. Many picture books are 40 pages in length. My book, “Poofa the Puffagoo” is a 40 page picture book. Anna Dewdney’s “Llama, Llama Red Pajama” is 32 pages and some of her successive books were 40 pages. The thing to keep in mind is you need to get the story written first before worrying about how it fits into a page construct.
10. TRUTH: You are going to become attached to that book you wrote or are writing. Gaining an honest perspective on the story and book will become increasingly difficult as the project progresses. If you are able to test it out on some age-appropriate readers, do it! Read the page, and then wave your arms and describe for them the scene (work that the illustrations would be doing). It’s excruciating to sit and watch a child fidget during your story when they just sat still and riveted to the last book you read them. It hurts. It hurts more than any other critique you will ever receive because it’s the truth. Ouch! Yes, the truth hurts. But kids don’t lie about their engagement in fun activities. They are engaged or they aren’t. Their reactions are pure and do not take into account your feelings or say nice things because they love you. I would highly recommend you test read your story before you even think about writing that query letter or emailing an agent.
Read the articles (menu on the right) on some of these subjects to gain a more in-depth perspective on writing children’s books.
Happy writing! Feel free to comment below and follow me on Twitter: @TraceyPrestonC