Tips for writing picture books part 1

Paper cut of children read a book under tree

I met a friend for coffee today to talk about writing. She told me she has lots of ideas for picture books and wasn’t sure where to start. When I walked home, I thought of all the things I wished I knew when I started to write picture books. So here’s a list for my friend – and for myself five years ago. Today’s blog post focuses on general tips for writing picture books. Part 2 – to follow soon – covers manuscript specifics.

  • Read. Read picture books to yourself and to your children or any random children as often as you can. I used to read books to any kids who came into our house. (They thought they were there to play with my kids but they were really there for me to read to!) Pay attention to which books hold children’s attention and which books make them wriggle with distraction or leave your side.
  • Read some more. Go to bookshops and libraries and read. Talk to the booksellers and librarians. Look at the latest releases. See which classic books still remain on the shelves.
  • Read your picture book manuscript aloud. Read it to children and read it to yourself. See if there are any words you stumble over. If there aren’t any words or phrases that delight you, rewrite your manuscript. Your picture book should sound like a poem and have memorable lines that make it into family vocabulary. What will another family quote from in your book?
  • Make writing a habit. Decide when you will write. It’s amazing how much work you can do on a picture book manuscript in ten minutes. I used to go to the fish and chips shop once a month, order our take-away, then write in the fifteen minutes it took for them to cook our order. If I had ordered at home, I would not have written for ten minutes. I would have folded washing or bathed children or checked emails. Work out how to sneak ten minute intervals of writing into your day. Make plans for half hour writing sessions.
  • Make your picture book into a dummy book. Fold paper into 32 pages. Write up the title page, the half title page, the imprint page. Divide your manuscript into the remaining pages. Draw stick figures to illustrate your words or ask your kids to illustrate it for you. When I did this for one of my stories, I realised I would have five pages of a mother talking to her child. Boring! I could see instantly that I needed to change that section. If you’re not sure how a picture book is constructed, look at a few picture books – count the pages, work out how many pages of text you need.

Resources

Mem Fox has a fabulous list on her website of do’s and don’t’s for writing picture book manuscripts.

Courses

Writers Victoria often runs courses on writing picture books – sometimes for one day, sometimes over several weeks.

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