How to write your own picturebook Advice for writers of all ages from a Children’s Librarian
Identify the age level of your reader Picturebooks are read mostly to preschoolers and early primary school children Some are more serious themes for all ages - like war or immigration, eg. Sadako by Eleanor Coerr or Shaun Tan’s “The arrival” Remember back to your childhood, and imagine telling your story to a child. Look at picturebooks and see what age they suit
Ideas Keep in mind your idea has to be original to get published – ask yourself, have you heard another story like yours ? If so, how can you make it more interesting? Otherwise your book may go straight into the publisher’s reject pile. Pick some strong memory, such as a childhood outing, a strong emotion, a problem or a funny thing that makes an entertaining tale What about hobbies like camping, fishing, dirt bike riding, football or dancing? Imagine the sounds, tastes, smells, sights and emotions and make them real with your words Write it down as if speaking to a child -You have to enjoy the tale to tell it well A problem, trick or adventure excites the child’s imagination -Make sure your idea includes a buildup and a satisfying ending maybe with a twist or joke to it.
Characters Can be people or animals, even animals, trucks or trains etc. acting like people Think what was good about memorable characters such as Three little pigs, Thomas the Tank engine, Peter Rabbit, Blinky Bill, Harry the dirty dog, or Hairy McClary The character has a personality, emotions and reactions to the adventure they are in See the characters from a child’s perspective – what makes them interesting?
Words How many words? 0 – 300 max Do not use baby language unless you are writing for babies Interesting words build a child’s vocabulary and are explained by image and context Sound words eg. “Boom bang bong”, rhymes and repetition help the child to remember the story, join in, and learn to read Check your spelling and grammar
Pages Most picturebooks are 16 or 32 pages long This includes the front and back inside cover and title pages Some pages may have only a few or even no words on them The pictures may be on one side of the page or interspersed with the words The middle page is the only page on one continuous sheet of paper Fold an A4 sheet in half and an A3 sheet in half to get an idea of page shape – to see what shape suits your pictures best
Text Layout Because of the layout of the book, the story progresses from left to right This makes a lot of sense with journeys and plots where action follows action Each page presents an idea Space your words so the reader will feel curious to turn the page and find out more Pace the words – some pages will have more text than others Text can weave in and around the pictures, which can be more exciting than having pictures separated from the text
Polish your idea Once you have a text, read it aloud, see how it sounds – does it flow off your tongue? Test it on a small child – see which bits interest or bore them and work on these Is it entertaining? How could you add more drama, humour or excitement? Are there worries or conflicts to add interest? Are the characters interesting enough? Can you add local flavoureg. Australian or is it meant to be set anywhere at all?
Most publishers are only interested in the text, and pick someone else to do the pictures. If you want to illustrate your own book, especially to self-publish, these tips are useful: Pictures Imagine the story is a film of slides, some closeups, some far distant views, and some from different angles Do the illustrations need to be gentle, cute, edgy or cartoony to aid the story? Simple or detailed? Do they add extra detail to the characters and setting? Do the illustrations tell you something the words omit to mention? Eg. Humour or insights about a character? eg. “Freddy was a fireman” (image shows that Freddy is a frog) Can you leave out some words because the pictures tell that part of the story?
Design and layout Get some ideas from looking at picturebooks Make a mini book from loose paper, pin it together and number the pages Use it to plan how to space the text and scribble in pencil the layout of your text and pictures Remember the middle spread allows for a pause, climax, or a large full width illustration Take the book apart to see how the double sided page actually prints sheet by sheet
Printing options Pictures can be scanned to a computer file and tidied up or even drawn in Photoshop using a drawing tablet Text and images can be put together in Word, Publisher, In Design and other programs These days there are online photo book printing business options and local printing businesses that may be able to help you eg. Lulu. Ask the printer what format they need the file presented to them in eg, pdf and what order they want the pages., what size and image quality they need eg. dpi
Publishers If sending your text to a publisher, find publisher lists at your local library and find out how they want the manuscript presented. Don’t bother sending to non-picturebook publishers. Publishers reject most manuscripts they read – make sure yours is the most polished effort you can produce before mailing it Be prepared to wait 8 weeks for a response
Perserverance Above all, do not lose your sense of fun – enjoy the writing process so that your tale will be entertaining and readable Try, try, and try again Practice makes a better writer If you do not sell all your self-published books, at least they make good presents with a personal touch