A STEP-BY-STEP MINIGUIDE
By Laura Backes,
Publisher, Children’s Book Insider,
the Newsletter for Children’s Writers
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE LANGUAGE OF PICTURE BOOKS 4
STEP 1: WRITING THE FIRST DRAFT 6
STEP 2: EDITING YOUR MANUSCRIPT 9
STEP 3: SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT 11
WHERE TO SEND YOUR MANUSCRIPT 13
THE LANGUAGE OF PICTURE BOOKS
Of all the different categories of children's books a writer has to choose from,
picture books are probably the most difficult to master. Because the texts are
short (usually 32 book pages), each word is important. With longer books, a
weak paragraph can go undetected, but in a picture book a few unwieldy
sentences will kill the story.
Good picture book texts capture the essence of a story. Words are chosen
sparingly; characters and plot are developed without excess descriptive
baggage. Picture books are meant to be read aloud to a child, and therefore the
rhythms of the words are important. In this sense, picture books are a lot like
Picture book writers can benefit from studying poetry -- both for adults and
children - to learn how to convey emotion and a story with very few words. The
lyrical quality of language used in poems also gives authors a great resource of
words to draw upon when writing picture books.
Because poetry and picture books are so similar, many people try to write picture
books in verse. This can be a mistake. The added burden of imposing meter and
rhyme on the story is often too difficult for beginning writers. Picture books don't
have to rhyme, and virtually any story can be told better in straight prose. The
trick is to give the text a poetic quality, which is accomplished by choosing the
words very carefully and rewriting extensively.
The average picture book is no longer than 1500 words (6 double-spaced, typed
pages). In this short space, the writer must develop a story peopled with
convincing characters. Or the writer must evoke a mood or scene from a child's
life, and play the scene out in an engaging way (as in Goodnight Moon, by
Margaret Wise Brown). Each sentence contains a single, concrete idea, and
every two or three sentences should convey a different visual image that can be
easily illustrated. After writing the first draft of a picture book, go through the text
and delete every unnecessary word. Then go through it again, replacing some of
the ordinary words with richer, more visually interesting phrases. Only when your
picture book is as tightly written as a poem are you ready to send it to the editors.
Now let's get started with Step 1: Writing The First Draft.
STEP 1: WRITING THE FIRST DRAFT
We're about to go step-by-step through the creation of a picture book manuscript,
from the first spark of an idea to submitting the work to publishers.
The term quot;picture bookquot; is often used to refer to any children's book that contains
illustrations on each page and is not broken up into chapters. For our purposes,
quot;picture bookquot; will mean a story for children age 3-7, who are beyond concept
books (which teach children to identify numbers, colors, animals, etc.), but
haven’t started reading entire books on their own.
The first step to writing a picture book is choosing a topic for your story. Ideas
can come from many sources; an incident you remember from your childhood,
something that happened to your 4-year-old at nursery school, an overheard
conversation between two 6-year-olds. The best picture books involve everyday
activities from a child's life. If you choose to retell a folktale, find a story that
hasn't been done a hundred times before. A look through Children's Books in
Print at your library will tell you if the market can handle another version of your
Many writers believe that picture books must teach the reader, or deliver some
quot;message.quot; Young children are bombarded with lessons every day of their lives,
and reading should be reserved for entertainment. Any message should be the
result of the story, and come out through the characters' actions. Don't find a
moral and build a plot around it. The most enduring picture books have a
message that's deeply embedded in fun or adventure (take Maurice Sendak's
Where the Wild Things Are, for example).
Once you have a topic, start creating your main character. Characters in picture
books can be anything from children to frogs to monsters. No matter who your
character is, it's important that he or she embody the child's point of view. If the
main character in your book is an adult, he should not think like an adult. The
story should be about a child's concerns, and how a child sees the world. This is
especially true when using animal characters. These animals should either be
children in disguise, and live a very childlike existence (complete with wearing
clothes, living in a house, etc.) or have unique personalities that stem from their
true animal nature. Too many writers rely on stereotypes or caricatures when
developing animal characters, which results in some editors saying no to any
quot;talking animalquot; book.
Leave the books about real animals to the nonfiction writers. (Note: Some
authors choose inanimate objects for characters: pencils, spoons, gloves. It's
very difficult to give a glove a personality. The exceptions are toys like teddy
bears and dolls. Most children believe these toys have personalities already, so
they will accept them as characters in your book. A classic example of this is The
Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.)
At this point it's often helpful for the writer to summarize the book in a short
paragraph. If you can't sum up your story in 2-3 sentences, it's too complicated
for a picture book. Texts in picture books run from 100 to 1500 words, with about
1000 words (4 double-spaced typed pages) the average. If your plot is too
convoluted, you won't be able to adequately develop your main character. Keep it
simple, and end the story on a happy note.
Now write your first draft, telling the story from your main character's point of
view. You can use either first person (I said) or third person (Max said).
Beginning writers often find writing in third person easier, as it enables them to
step back from the character. Writing in first person requires the author to
become the character for the duration of the story. Keep the number of
secondary characters to a minimum; you won't have enough space to develop
these characters, and too many of them will confuse your readers.
It's also important to tell your story in a series of actions with dialogue scattered
throughout. The words must convey concrete, visual images. Children of this age
can't think abstractly -- they only understand what they see and feel. Even
emotions must be described in sensory terms (shaking knees show fear, etc.).
When writing your first draft, just concentrate on getting the story down on paper.
Don't worry about the word count or fine-tuning the plot. These topics will be
covered in Step 2: Editing Your Manuscript.
STEP 2: EDITING YOUR MANUSCRIPT
Now it's time to start editing your manuscript. The first thing you need to do is cut
part of what you've written. Picture book texts can range in length from 100-1500
words, though most editors prefer that the word count doesn't go over 1000. In
any case, you should be able to cut at least 10% of your manuscript off the bat.
Any word that isn't absolutely necessary to the story should go. Don't waste your
word count on physical descriptions of your characters unless it's something
unique. The fact that Sara has long brown hair doesn't add anything to the story,
but if she always wears red cowboy boots it's worth mentioning. Remember, the
illustrator will show the readers what each character looks like.
Characters' actions should all relate directly to advancing the plot. For example, if
Tommy wakes up in the morning, gets dressed, eats breakfast and catches the
school bus, your book will be filled with ordinary and boring details. However, if
something happens on the way to school, it's an interesting place to start your
book. Your readers will figure out that Tommy got dressed and ate before the
Now that you've trimmed all the superfluous material from your story, take a look
at what's left. Start with the character. Is he or she a well-developed,
multidimensional character that children will care about? After reading your story,
a child should be able to describe many aspects of the character's personality.
Also look at your secondary characters. They don't have to be as fully developed
as the main character, but should contribute to the story in some way. If there are
too many secondary characters you won't be able to give any of them a distinct
personality and your readers will have trouble telling them apart from one
Now examine the dialogue. It's important that each person have their own unique
voice, and that child characters talk like children. Make the dialogue work for you.
Use it to advance the plot or give insight into someone's personality. Wherever
possible, attach an action to dialogue to move the story along (quot;Give me back my
books!quot; Susan stamped her foot and glared at Tim.) It's not necessary to add quot;he
saidquot; to the end of each sentence of dialogue; in many cases it will already be
clear who is speaking.
If you follow all these steps and your manuscript is still over the 1500 word
maximum, the story may be too complex for a picture book. Try focusing your
book on just a portion of the story, or break it into two books. If you can't simplify
the plot, you might have a story more appropriate for older children.
It may take several rewrites before your manuscript is as tight as it can be. Many
authors find it helpful to set the story aside for a few days between drafts -- often
you will more easily notice the weak spots with a fresh eye. When your
manuscript is finished, try reading it to children. Watch them as they listen to the
story -- if their attention wanders at certain parts, your manuscript needs more
work. After you've completed the editing process, you'll be ready for the next
topic -- Step 3: Submitting Your Manuscript to Publishers.
STEP 3: SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT
Now you're ready to submit your manuscript to publishers.
If you don't plan on illustrating the book...
If you have no artistic talent, don't try to illustrate your story. Amateurish
illustrations will give your manuscript an unprofessional appearance and detract
from the writing. You do not have to find an illustrator for your book -- publishers
have a quot;stablequot; of artists they like to use, and will assign one to your manuscript.
Often publishers pair a first-time author with a more experienced illustrator so
that one of the names on the book is recognizable to book buyers and librarians.
Type your manuscript -- double-spaced with at least 1quot; margins -- on white
paper. Center the title about a third of the way down on the first page, and put
your name, address, e-mail address and phone number in the upper left corner.
Your name/title of the book should appear across the top of sub- sequent pages,
and all pages should be numbered consecutively. You can add a blank line in the
text where the page breaks would go in the finished book, but it's not necessary.
Note: Don't add art directions to your text (directions to the illustrator as to what
art should appear on each page). The text must stand on its own, and evoke
strong visual images in the editor's mind without any prompting from the author.
If you plan on illustrating the book...
If you are an illustrator as well as a writer, type your manuscript as above, but
also include a dummy. Break the text into book pages (most picture books are 32
pages long, with about 28 pages of text and art), and type each page of text onto
a piece of paper. Create a black and white sketch for the corresponding
illustrations. The sketches should be detailed enough to give the editor a good
idea of how you envision each page. Staple the pages together like a book and
design a rough cover. Include two or three finished color illustrations (copies
only -- never send original art).
Note: It's not recommended, but if you know an illustrator with whom you are
determined to work, have the illustrator create a dummy as above and include it
with your typed manuscript. However, be prepared for the fact that an editor may
reject the manuscript on the basis of inappropriate illustrations.
HOW TO KNOW WHERE TO SEND YOUR MANUSCRIPT
There are over one hundred publishers in this country who produce picture
books, so doing some research now will save you a lot of time in the long run. Go
to bookstores and look at recently published picture books that have the same
tone as your manuscript (literary, fantasy, humorous, etc). Write down the names
of the publishers of these books. Then go to the library and look through the
current Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market for the addresses and phone
numbers of these publishers along with names of editors. CWIM also lists the
types of books each publisher is looking for, so verify that your manuscript will fit
in with the publisher’s current needs. After you have compiled a list of 10-20
publishers, call each one (ask to speak to the children's editorial department),
and confirm that the editor is still there and that he or she is accepting unsolicited
submissions (manuscripts that come from writers with whom the editor has not
had previous contact).
Attach a brief cover letter (no more than three paragraphs) to the manuscript,
and include a self-addressed envelope with enough postage for the manuscript's
Once your manuscript is in the mail, start writing another one. There's nothing
worse than sitting by the mailbox waiting for an editor's reply. With any luck, your
hard work will have paid off, and you'll get a call from an editor with an offer on
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