Picture Book Writing Tips
Tottie and Dot was written for pure entertainment value. The final book ended up containing some messaging on such topics as the value of friendship and staying true to ourselves, but it was not intended to be a ‘message-driven’ book. These types of books are very hard to do well, as are rhyming books and humorous books and, well … all manner of picture books, really.
To that end, I present my top tips on writing picture books. I hope they help you refine your work, no matter your underlying purpose.
1. Don’t use a lot of text, especially dialogue which is very hard to illustrate. If your text simply must be over 500 words long, it should be vibrant and intensely edited.
2. Let the pictures do the talking––don't say what the pictures can show.
3. Think carefully about rhythm and flow––read it aloud and listen to the way the words work together, taking note of the beat as you read.
4. Publishers generally don’t like rhyme and there’s a reason—it’s very, very hard to get right. Don’t attempt rhyme unless it’s infallible. Study the use of iambic pentameter to better understand the concept that two rhyming-end words do not a good rhyme make.
5. Is your word usage and sentence structure clear, dynamic and interesting? Or does the reader stumble or become confused?
6. Never talk down to the reader.
7. Never hammer readers with morals. If you simply must use them, make them funny or so subtle, they can barely be defined. Kids will still pick them up.
8. A picture book needs a plot or a story arc of some kind. Things need to HAPPEN. Showing someone going about their day and going to bed at night is not a story. It’s an account.
9. Do different. Avoid overdone topics and try your hand at unusual voice or story structure.
10. Have an ending. Make it shocking, surprising, funny, quirky, or in some way resolving and/or related to a plot link. Too many picture books fail when it comes to the ending. Resolve it well and repeat-reads are assured.
11. Ensure your main characters are protagonistic. Employ conflict and resolution—something to overcome.
12. Most lines in a picture book text should inspire vibrant illustration. Do yours?
13. Write books for kids, not adults.
14. Allow your manuscripts to ‘marinate’ between drafts. This will allow things to develop in ways you never dreamed possible.
15. Write what YOU love, what interests and inspires you. Don’t try to write something to fill a market gap—write something from the heart and make sure it’s something you believe in and enjoy. Both publishers—and kids—will absolutely feel it.
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