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A Guest Post by Children’s Author Megan Higginson

Picture books are easy to write. Right!

Publishers are inundated by picture book manuscripts. Why? Because many believe that picture books are easy to write, and crafting one often entails something like the scenario:

‘Hey, Megan. Guess what? I had an idea for a children’s book while reading to my kids Friday night.’

‘That’s fantastic!’

‘Yep! I slaved over it all weekend and sent it to a bunch of publishers this morning.’ This is said while rubbing their hands together with a look of glee. ‘I can’t wait. They’ll be knocking my door down. And it wasn’t that hard to write a kid’s book. A few hundred words and Bob’s your uncle. Seriously. I don’t know what’s so hard about writing a picture book.’

As for me (in this imagined scenario that I wish never happened but does happen), I am about to have a coronary.

Contrary to popular belief, writing picture books is hard work. Why? It’s a story. It has a beginning, middle, and an end. But it’s just a short story, right? Wrong. Picture books are so much more. I’ve had to find out the hard way. Here’s what I’ve learned through reading about writing picture books, doing the Writing a Picture Book course through the Australia Writer’s Centre, belonging to an online critique group for children’s writers, being mentored through a picture book manuscript, asking questions of published picture book authors, and writing (then re-writing) a number of picture book manuscripts.

Learn to play

You have to learn to play. Play with words. Play with ideas. Go crazy. It’s like finger painting with words. Start with an idea and see where it takes you. Then be prepared to do a lot of re-writing. And I do mean a lot.

After completing the picture book course, I had a story that seemed ready to go out into the world. It was based on a true story about two dogs that I’d seen on the news. After a number of rejections, I took another look at the book, and then asked an author friend of mine to read it. She mentored me through the manuscript and it became better than I could have ever imagined. I learnt a lot through the mentoring process. My story is out there again, sent off into the wide world of publishing, but with a better chance of successfully finding a publishing home than it had before.

Revising is worth the effort because the story improves and themes emerge — sometimes, the manuscript might even become a totally different story. And that’s okay.

Learn to think in double spreads and the physicality of a picture book

Alison Reynolds, author of the Pickle and Bree series, and the Marmalade books, gives this advice in an interview with Dee White:

‘Think of each spread as a scene, and when you turn the page the curtain closes and there’s a new scene on the next page. I buy visual diaries and copy my words in them so I can check on the flow. I also always write illustration guidelines. This helps me check that there is actually something different to illustrate on each spread.’

Remember, your words are not the only things that are going to be on the page. Illustrations play a huge role in a picture book. There are descriptions that don’t need to be included because of this. I like making up a 32 page dummy book and have it set out like it would be once published. It helps me think of page turns, as well as the pacing of the story.

Don’t have too many words

The current word-length trend in Australia for picture books is around 600 words, or even less than 500. I’ve seen some books with no words. However, I’ve also been told that if the story is good, it may be allowed to have more than 600 words. So, there are exceptions. If you’re looking at publishing in America and/or the UK, the publishers are happy with up to 1,000 words.

Keep the following in mind when drafting your picture book: it’s tricky to develop your character/s, send them on adventure, or give them a problem, have a resolution, and make people fall in love with your character/s, in fewer than 600 words. It’s do-able but it’s not easy.

You’ve finished your manuscript, now what?   

Put your manuscript in the bottom drawer.

After writing a picture book I like to put it away for a week or more and work on something else. Then I drag it out, and endeavour to have an objective look at it. Have I started in the right place? Can I begin at a later point along the story’s timeline? What would happen if I changed one character to someone (or something) else? I also consider whether I should try a different setting. I think about whether the time of day might affect the story. In short, I ask myself a lot of questions and have fun playing around with the story to see what might happen.

What next?

I had a conversation with another picture book author on Facebook last year about the differences between picture book authors and novelists. We decided that, during the editing phrase, novelists would work though their manuscript by checking hundreds of words, or more, in a morning.

As for us, we would stare at the manuscript looking at each word in each line. Does it belong there? If not, what’s a better word? We’d take out a word, or a sentence. We’d ask ourselves the same questions: am I using the correct tense all the way through? Am I using sparkling language? Are my verbs active or passive? Personally, I pour over my active verbs list and check every single verb that I’ve used. We might add one word, or move another. By the end of the morning, we may have worked with 14 words. But we would have made progress, none-the-less.

Read your manuscript out loud, over and over again

Reading your manuscript out loud helps you pick up errors, along with any problems with pacing and rhythm.

I find that if I print the manuscript out in a different font, and then read it aloud, I can pick up problems I hadn’t noticed before. Even missing words that my brain supplied while reading the manuscript from a screen are detected at this stage.

You’ve written your manuscript, left it, worked at improving it. Now what?

Find a great critique partner or workshop.

I belong to a great writers’ group. They’re mostly primary school teachers and are used to the language of picture books, as well as the age group that I’m writing for. They’ll quickly notice if dialogue doesn’t sound right, if something is unclear, or if I stumble over words while reading aloud (this can mean a change of wording is required). So sharing your work in this way can be a really constructive exercise.

I also belong to an online critique group specifically for children’s authors. We’re all at stages in our careers and the feedback is invaluable. My critique partners always improve my stories. I sometimes go a step further and send my manuscript out for a structural edit or assessment. I’ve learnt a lot through this process, which helps me look at a story with fresh eyes.

There you have it — the myth that children’s picture books are easy to write is busted. So I hope you’re willing to put in the hard work to make your picture book story the very best it can be.

Do you want more tips? Checkout Jen Storer’s post, 20 Top Tips: Writing Books for Kids.

Part 2 of writing for children will be posted next month.

Author Bio

Megan Higginson writes in a small house surrounded by open cut coal mines and power stations. The world inspires Megan: interesting people, animals, history, and science. She loves penning her thoughts and observations in her notebook, which is never far from her person.

Megan is a qualified Youth Worker, and Education Support Worker and has worked as a mentor for teenagers.

Her debut picture book, Raymund and the Fear Monster is due out late 2017. It was originally written for the children she met in a Filipino orphanage in 2013 when she asked herself the question, ‘What if fear was a monster?’

Though she will forever love the North Queensland sun, she currently lives with her adult daughter, two crazy fluffy black cats and a gentleman of a dog in Gippsland, Victoria. If Megan is not writing, you will find her watching sci-fi with her daughter, hanging out with friends, pottering around in her garden, learning something new, or with her head in a book.

Her website is: http://meganhigginson.weebly.com/