After attending the 44th SCBWI conference in L.A. in 2015, I was asked if I could summarise my top tips for writing picture books from the conference. So, I did.
I decided to revive this post for you today, asking myself the following two questions:
1) Do the same learnings still hold today as they did back then?
2) Can I offer you any personal insights, five years into my picture book writing journey?
So, let’s get started!
My top 7 tips for writing picture books:
Lessons from the 44th SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles (2015)
1’173 writers and illustrators from 19 countries. 75 stellar faculty members. More than 80 speeches and workshops to choose from. 400 first-time attendees, including “moi” – a debut picture book writer.
This was my first time in L.A., and my first time at an SCBWI conference. (SCBWI stands for Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. If you are a picture book writer or illustrator and never heard of them, do look them up!)
I had just started my picture book writing journey, and I certainly didn’t dare call myself a writer back then. I felt more like an imposter, sneaking in in the midst of all those veterans and big names. An imposter with great hopes and dreams.
I wanted to…
- … learn new skills to improve my writing.
- … understand the publishing world.
- … get a glimpse into the minds of editors and agents.
- … connect with fellow writers and illustrators, to know I’m not alone.
I was not disappointed!
The conference covered all genres from Picture Book to Young Adult. And it was filled with advice for both writers and illustrators. Here the top 7 tips I learned for writing Picture Books:
Tip # 1. Write about what obsesses you.
Don’t worry about trends. Trends come and go, and are hard to catch. Write about what pre-occupies you today instead. Write from a place of genuineness. A place of heartfelt events.
“Write a story a child would give a damn about” – Jennifer Rofé, agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
Little did I know just how important this first tip was going to be for me, five years down the road.
I’ve been queering publishers and agents for a couple of years now, and have been receiving the nicest rejection letters. “Love your writing but can’t sell it” was usually the gist of it.
My work is quite specific, you see. It’s based on the Christian faith, nothing wrong with that. It’s lyrical, nothing wrong with that either. But it neither fits into one of the most popular Christian markets: Holiday books. Nor does it fit in the more traditional Christian market: I don’t have an official theological background, and my writing is “free style”. So, supposedly, I wouldn’t “sell” in that market either.
Not to mention, I’m a nobody. I have no “platform”, i.e. thousands of fans waiting for me to publish something so they can buy it. So why would any publisher or agent take a chance on a debut author like myself? Especially considering the small profit margins on picture books.
So, for now, I’ve decided to continue writing the stories whispered within me, and which only I can write. I don’t worry about trends or what others think may or may not sell.
A part of me is even considering self-publishing. My daughter (10) says that she wants to be an illustrator / cartoonist when she grows up. So, I might just wait until she is ready to illustrate our books :-).
Tip # 2. Don’t dumb down your words.
This was a great lesson from Mem Fox, amazing picture book author and an educationalist specialising in literacy.
“I am a brain developer, and a developer of speech” – Mem Fox
Mem does not water down her vocabulary to aid comprehension. Instead, she uses what she believes is the right word for her story and character.
I love that! And so today, I follow on Mem’s sturdy footsteps. If a word feels “right”, I keep it in. And let’s face it, adults usually read these picture books out loud anyway. So as long as it’s a word adults understand, and as long as I don’t overwhelm my text with “difficult” words, I feel I’m good.
Tip #3. Leave room for the illustrator
Photo by Bryan Gomes from Pexels.
Tip # 3. Leave room for the illustrator.
This was a big one! Almost every single editor, agent and keynote speaker emphasised it time and time again.
Picture books are 50% text, 50% illustrations. Leave plenty of room for the illustrator to tell their side of the story. What does that mean?
1. As you revise, get rid of all descriptions, adjectives and adverbs. Then read your story again, and only reinsert those descriptors which are central to your plot and the integrity of your story.
2. Only submit illustrator’s notes if the text contradicts the image. This was one of those things where editors’ and agents’ views ranged from “use very few illustrator’s notes” to “use none”! No one said: feel free to write as many notes as you wish, as I may disregard them anyway. Why? Because keeping your illustrator’s notes to a minimum shows professionalism and respect for the artist.
Now, I used to have illustrator notes in all my manuscripts. After that conference, I got rid of ALL of them! If something was critical to the story, I inserted it in the text where appropriate. If not, I took it out.
If you’re writing a wordless book, that’s obviously a different story. But if not, you’ll find that illustrator notes then become the exception rather than the rule.
Tip # 4. It’s all about Voice, Plot, Rhythm and Fresh perspectives.
All editors and agents agreed that quality picture books need to have voice (the character’s), plot, and read-aloud quality (rhythm).
They also agreed that a story needs a genuine emotional resonance, because “the author felt it first”.
Finally, it needs to provide a fresh perspective on the topic you are tackling. Why should readers read your book and not another one in the same category?
Over the years, I found critique groups incredibly helpful in that space! On the one handside, it allows you to keep reading and writing. It connects you to a community of writers, who share your passion for writing and children’s books. And it’s an incredible source of inspiration to re-think, re-write, and perfect that manuscript.
Kill your Darlings
Photo by Burak Kostak from Pexels
In one of my former critique groups, we used to say: “Kill your darlings”! Each one of us tended to have a favourite paragraph, character or scene that, as the author, we felt very attached to, while everyone one else thought it wasn’t adding any value to the story. Ouch! And so, we would recommend to the author to “kill their darling”, temporarily at least. Delete that scene or that character. See how the story stands without it. And then decide what to do about it based on that experience.
Nine times out of ten, the darling never made it back to the story.
Tip # 5. To rhyme or not to rhyme?
The reason many editors shy away from rhyming books is because it is often badly done. If you choose to write a rhyming book, watch out for the following:
- The rhyme needs to elevate your story. It needs to add something to the story that regular prose would otherwise take away.
- The rhyme should never lead your story. If you find yourself having to do backflips to accommodate the rhyme, stop rhyming and explore other options.
My first picture book manuscript was all in rhyme. I had no clue about meter, scansion or rhythm. It was about 1200 words long. And I was convinced it was amazing! I got to the SCBWI conference. Signed up to one of the critique groups on offer, and read my manuscript out loud with great pride. The total silence that ensued could have meant only one of two things:
1. My writing was so incredibly compelling; it took their breath away.
2. My writing was so incredibly disjointed; they didn’t know what to say without hurting my feelings.
I’ll let you guess which one applied! LOL
In any case, finally, a wonderfully talented published author, Stacy McAnulty, broke the silence in the most kind and generous way. ‘Till this day, I’ve been forever grateful for her honesty and courage to tell me what I needed to hear.
My debut picture book still sits disjointed in my virtual drawer of desolate manuscripts, needing a serious re-vamp. Meanwhile, I’ve benefited greatly from Renée LaTulippe‘s amazing articles and videos on rhyme and rhythm. Renée is not only one of the best rhyme instructors I’ve had so far. She also provides amazing critiques and has a kind generous spirit.
Tip # 6. Aim for 500 words.
Yes, picture books can go up to 1000 words, especially if non-fiction. But if you are a debut writer, aim for 500 words, up to 700 words at most.
That is one piece of advice I follow religiously. In fact, most of my lyrical picture books don’t go beyond 350 words. And yes, if you choose your words and verbs wisely, you can tell a beautiful lyrical story in 350 words.
Tip # 7. Make a dummy.
A dummy is a physical representation of what your picture book could look like once printed.
This is not something you would ever send an editor or agent. It is the illustrator’s job to decide which text goes on which page, and where the page turns are. A dummy, however, helps you, the author, with the following:
- Pacing. It gives you a feel for your story’s rhythm, and the balance between beginning, middle and end.
- Page turns. It gives you a feel where your page turns are. Is there enough suspense every time to find out what happens next?
If you are a pre-published author, you will want to stick to the 32-page format. Most likely your text will start around page 4, and you will probably want to end at page 30 or 31. This leaves 1-2 pages in case the illustrator may wish to use them.
I found dummies very helpful over the years, especially with my 300-word manuscripts. It allowed me to see if, with the right illustrations, page turns and pace, I can still fit into the industry’s preferred 32-page format. In some cases, this meant writing one or two more paragraphs, adding depth to the story.
If you’ve never seen a dummy before and are looking for a template, check out Inkygirl’s website.
“Children are the best readers and they deserve the best books” – Mac Barnett
Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay.
What has been your own experience with writing, regardless of the genre? I’d love to hear what tips or insights you’ve gained through your own experience. So do share in a comment below.
If you enjoyed these 7 tips for writing picture books, you may also enjoy my follow-up post on 7 tips when submitting to editors and agents.
- Website: Patrice Sherman’s Writing Picture Books website is full of great advice
- My favourite poetry teacher for picture books: Renée LaTulippe’s website & Youtube channel
- In addition to SCBWI events (for members), you may also wish to check the Picture Book Summit, an online conference for picture book writers with presentations by published authors, editors and agents
- My follow-up post: 7 tips when submitting to editors and agents