Monday, January 23, 2012

Thoughts On Writing Picture Books

So. I think I need to post more about writing stuff. Sometimes I get a bit distracted with the crafts. Yes, you're probably rolling your eyes and thinking,"Sometimes, Erin?" Oh, shush. Let me be.

Anywhoo, I thought I'd share some tips on writing picture books (and yes, this is like the guy on the couch teaching people how to run a marathon....what do I know?). But first, I'm going to share some of my favorites....



Aren't they beautiful? And the titles? So fun! Just makes you want to snatch them up and devour them, right? Naked Mole Rate Gets Dressed....oh my. Mo Willems, I love you. Um...that a purely professional sense....

Alright, moving on...A few years ago I was asked to judge a writing contest for the St. George LUW (League of Utah Writers) Chapter. I used to have a blog in a different blogging sphere and I posted about the experience afterward and what I learned. And so, in case you're looking for some tips, here you go....

Whew.  I finished judging the manuscripts.  I wrote on each the strengths and my suggestions for making them better.  Some of the same problems I saw over and over, so I put together a little list for each of the writers....(of course, it's ALWAYS so much easier to see what's wrong with other's writing rather than our own, eh?)

I probably missed some crucial points, but hopefully, I covered the big ones...
Writing Picture Books

* Make sure every word needs to be there.  Make the writing tight. If there are words that aren’t propelling the story forward—kill them!
* Introduce the problem fast, within a few lines, preferably in the first line.
* Create a story that can work with the illustrations.  Leave room for the pictures to tell part of the story. There is a big difference between a magazine story and a picture book story.  A magazine story describes everything. A picture book shouldn’t.  That’s what the pictures are there for.  For example, don’t include the color of the girl’s shirt, unless it is important in the story…say, the story is called The Little Girl’s Blue Shirt, then you would mention it…otherwise, let the illustrator take care of that.
* Give the main character a problem, a big problem, something that makes us root for them.  And make the main character solve it themselves.  They need to grow.
* Make the problem relevant to your target audience.
* The main character needs to be a child or a child-like character.
* Give your story a satisfying conclusion.  Don’t let it drag or end too fast.
* Make your story quirky, unusual or unique.  Find a new voice and a new way to tell it.
* Dialogue makes a story more fun to read aloud.  Some stories work without it, but most of my favorite books to read aloud to my children have dialogue…it’s always fun to have an excuse to talk in different voices!
* Make sure your story is actually for children, not an adult story in disguise.  Also, make sure your picture book is not a young adult or middle grade chapter book in disguise. 
* A great book about writing for children is Picture Writing by Anastasia Suen.  She talks all about using your words to create pictures in the minds of your audience.  Wonderful book.
* Write a story that, first, entertains, not sends a message. Yes, many picture books have a message, but let the story come first.
*And last….read, read, read!  Make sure you’re reading the new picture books that are being published.  Be familiar with what modern children are interested in and what kind of stories they like.
And I must say, this was really really great for me.  It was a  great exercise, trying to pinpoint exactly why a story isn't quite working and offer suggestions for making it better.  It made me see my own manuscripts much differently and helped me see some of my own mistakes. 
Boy, I have a lot of work to do.

I'd like to say I now write perfect picture books and since having written these tips up I have published a shelf full of the lovely things. But, alas, it's not true. I have quite a few picture manuscripts. Some I think are fab. Others are waiting for me to figure out their ending. And still there are more that are just plain sad.  Sad, sad, sad. And I don't mean a dog dies at the end. It's the's just....well. I still have a lot to learn! 

So, now....what are some of your favorite picture books?


  1. Great tips. I remember and loved your picture book ideas. Why you haven't published one yet beats me. Maybe you haven't sent them out enough!

    1. Thanks Alice :) That made my day. I haven't worked on my stash of PBs for a long time....been trying to tame the novel beast instead. But I've been wanting to look at a few of them and see if I could make them better. Thanks again sweet friend!

  2. Y'know, a lot of these things apply to writing novels, too - universal laws of writing, I'd say.

    Fav' picture books... I really like 'Suddenly Alligator' by Rick Walton. It cracked me up the first time through and still makes me smile.

    It's a bummer that the picture book market is so tough these days... I hope you can put one through anyway. :) If you need a reader, let me know, a'right? :)

    1. Great point, Joseph. Yeah, they are good rules for novels, too.

      I love Suddenly Alligator, too! I should have put some Utah author's books up there...

      And thanks! I might take you up the reader thing some time. :)