Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

So you want to write a picture book...

I've gone to many writer's retreats and conferences and have met many new writers who want to write picture books. I'm not sure why writers start out wanting to write in this genre. The only thing I can guess is that they think it's easy, or at least easier than writing a chapter book, middle grade, or young adult. It's not!

Picture books just might be the toughest genre, especially for newbie writers. Why? Because you've got to have a full plot, interesting characters, great story, strong voice, recognizable theme, compelling setting, make it fit the page limits, and all under 1000 words (typical for today's market).

So, what is a picture book, exactly?

** A picture book is a story told partly with words and partly with pictures, or what's commonly called in the writer world, illustrations**

Another thing I've noticed newbie writers do is illustrate their work themselves. Don't do this. Choose to be the writer or the illustrator when you are first starting out and stick to one. Once you get a contract, then you can play around with being both the illustrator and writer. 

Illustrating a picture book is just as hard, if not harder, than writing one. All the same rules apply for the illustrator, strong voice, alluring setting, etc (see above)…it's difficult to be amazing at both, especially your first time out. 

Hint: Typically a publishing house pairs a newbie picture book writer with a known illustrator or vice versa. If you are an unknown, having a known will help book sales - so don't fight this. 

If you are a newbie writer, and the above has not deterred you from writing your first fabulous picture book, then here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Is there a real story here?
  • Do the characters have conflict?
  • Is the topic too complex for a picture book, or not complex enough?
  • Why am I telling this story?
  • Have I read hundreds of picture books of today's market?
  • Am I preaching to the kids?
  • Does this story need to be told?
  • Is there room for illustrations?
  • Would illustrations enhance the story?
  • Will adults and children be engaged?
  • Has this topic been done too many times before?
  • Is there a market for this type of story?
  • Can this story be used in a classroom?
  • Have I checked the libraries to see if this story already exists?
  • Are my main characters children?
  • Does this story pertain to today's youth?
  • Do I know how children talk and act today?
  • Have I targeted a specific age group?
  • Is my main character likable?
  • What is the story arc?
  • Why would readers care?
  • Do I know that picture books that rhyme rarely get published these days?
  • Can I write without rhyming?
  • Are the sentences fun to say out loud?
  • Do I have interesting verbs?
  • Is the language age-appropriate?
  • Do I want to read it over and over again?
  • Are my characters complex, unique people?
  • Does my main character resolve the issue or does some annoying adult save the day?
  • How do kids learn today? 
  • Are they using iPads in elementary school?
  • How do kids read today? On what do they read --- kindle? iPad? Computer? Books?
  • What are schools like today? Are kids still sitting in a classroom, or are they moving around, learning outside, in a common area?
  • What are the words kids use for gym class? Is it PE? Is it Phys-Ed? Is it exercise class? Is it something else entirely? 
  • What words do the kids use for all learning in the classroom?

Once you've answered all of the above questions there are a few more things you should do when writing your first picture book.

1. Research! ---- Do not write anything unless you have researched it. And, I don't just mean the subject. How do children talk today? How do they communicate? Even elementary aged kids use iPhones and iPads now…how does that play into your idea? Does it matter? At least know if it does. 

2. Character. Character. Character. ---- Picture books must have engaging characters, and not just your main character. And keep the adults to a minimum, please.

3. VOICE ---- La La La ---- And, no, I don't mean singing and I don't mean how your character speaks. Voice is how you -- the writer -- well, your main character -- sees the world. The uniqueness of your view point. When someone falls down - do you a) laugh out loud. b) help them up. c) pretend you didn't see it? How do you live in the world? What irks you? What do you love? What can you talk about forever? What do you hate? This is voice --- it's you. And once you get over that it's you and you let loose, you will have your voice.

4. Setting ---- Where does your story take place? When does your story take place? Make it unique, play around with both place and time. Children love to learn about times that have gone by and/or times in the now and/or a future time you believe might happen. 

When is just as important --- this means when as in year but also time of day, months in the year. Is it warm or cold outside? Raining or sunny? Is it night or day? Is it the 1960's or 2999? Have fun with choosing these and see what it does to your story when you change the when and where.

5. Plot ---- Beginning - Middle - End. First question is, do you have a strong plot? Is this a story? Does the main character change in some way from the beginning to the end? Are there obstacles in the main characters way? In picture books there are usually 3 obstacles before the main character learns and grows. If you don't know what I mean by this --- go read picture books!

So there you have it - the picture book talk. I too, as newbie writer, thought I could whip up the best picture book and get published within a few months. I, too, learned my lesson. Picture books are tough, a lot harder than you think to get right. If that's where your writing passion lies -- then go for it. But if you are attempting to write a picture book because you think they're easy --- STOP right now. 

START with a novel. Try your writing hand at that. You can be freer with a novel because there are no 32-page constraints and there is room to play and learn and grow. You don't have to worry about illustrations, too. Of course, there are rules to novel writing, but they aren't as restrictive. 

I am a novel writer who thought writing picture books would be a breeze. I wish someone would have told me the truth. Instead, I wasted money and time lugging my picture book manuscripts to writer's retreats when my true voice was much older. 

Picture books are not an easy place to begin your writing career. Try your hand at all the genres first, before you corner yourself as this type of writer or that one. 

Good Luck in whatever genre you choose!
Just be sure it's the right fit for your voice and your knowledge.


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