Friday, September 29, 2017

8 Things to Know If You Want to Write a Picture Book

By Amy Fellner Dominy and Nate Evans, @amydominy

Part of the How They Do It series

Amy Fellner Dominy is the author of books for teens, tweens and toddlers. A former advertising copywriter and MFA playwright, Amy’s novels include Die For You; A Matter of Heart; Audition & Subtraction; and OyMG, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book. Picture books, co-written with Nate Evans, are Cookiesaurus Rex and Cookiesaurus Christmas (2018.) Amy lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband, various pets, and two children who occasionally stop by for free meals.

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Nate Evans is the New York Times bestselling author/illustrator of more than forty children’s books, including Ponyella with Laura Numeroff. His most recent picture book is Cookiesaurus Rex co-authored with Amy Fellner Dominy. Tyrannosaurus Ralph is his first middle-grade graphic novel, with artwork by his brother, Vince Evans. Before turning to his true love – children’s books – Nate was a greeting card artist. Nate is also a middle-grade art teacher and loves to share his passion for books with his students. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Take it away Amy and Nate...

Maybe you’re someone who’s always wanted to write a picture book. They’re short. They’re easy. Not to mention, most of us have kids in our lives and aren’t they adorable? They do twenty things every day that would make for a best-selling picture book. If only you had a spare hour or two, because how long can it take to write 400 words?

If you’re thinking along these lines, we’ve got some bad news and some good news.

The bad news: It’s not that easy.

The good news: We’re going to give you some tips here that actually might help you to break into picture book publishing.

Short Word Counts Can Take a Long Time

One of the mistakes writers make is they equate short with quick. Picture books are actually just as hard, if not harder, than novels. In a very short space, you’re still developing a character with voice and personality. You’ve got conflict and resolution. Maybe a supporting cast of characters. Every word needs to count. So take your time. Cookiesaurus Rex is 330 words and we spent 6 months working on the manuscript. The story went through many transformations and as we began to find the character we liked, a character that made us laugh, his voice began to take over the story. It became clear that he was the voice of the story, and so we made the decision to tell our tale through nothing but dialogue.

You Need More than Cute; You Need a Story Idea

It’s funny to think about a book featuring a dinosaur cookie. But funny alone doesn’t sell books these days. You need a story. And that means a character with a problem. Readers want to see your characters face conflict and work through it. What made Cookiesaurus Rex work was giving him a strong goal and problem: He wants to look better than all the other cookies. But once he’s decorated, he isn’t happy with his gloppy green frosting and stupid hat. What’s he going to do—how will he come out ahead over the hands that are decorating him? That’s what gives the story legs (pardon the pun).

It Takes More Than Your Kids Liking It

Sure, your kids (grandkids, neighbor kids, etc.) love the picture book story you’ve just written – they laugh, they shout to hear it again and again. Now you’re certain you have a best-seller on your hands. Not so fast. This type of feedback, while often fun and gratifying, isn’t a realistic assessment of your work. For truly useful feedback, you’ve got to move out into a much wider world of knowledgeable readers. A critique group of other picture book writers can be invaluable. Finding a community of creative writers is an important part of writing – you get support, inspiration, advice and tips about craft, and most importantly, honest feedback. Listen with an open mind. We’ve found the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to be a wonderful resource for connecting with others who are as passionate about picture books as you are.

Don’t Just Think Words

Think action. A picture book is a melding of words and illustrations. Things need to be happening on every page or a picture book stalls out. Early on, we got bogged down in the middle of Cookiesaurus Rex. He wasn’t happy with his decoration, but then what? It’s not very interesting to see a character whine and complain. A character needs to act. That’s when we got the idea for Cookiesaurus to decorate himself in funnier and funnier costumes. That led to Cookie’s war with the decorator. All we ever see of the decorator are hands. This way, visually, the reader feels even more a part of the book -- as if they’re the human decorator who’s engaged in a battle of wits with this demanding dino cookie. Ultimately, it’s Cookiesaurus’s actions that drive the story and the fun. What’s driving your story?

The Lesson Is Not to Focus on the Lesson

When we’re writing for little kids, we’re afraid they won’t get the message unless we make it r e a l l y obvious: Share! Be nice! Eat your vegetables! Don’t fear the dentist! It’s OK to be different! We’re not suggesting you shouldn’t have these messages in your book, but they should not be overstated. In fact, they shouldn’t be stated at all. Even the youngest kids learn through the actions of your character. We don’t ever come out and say if you act like a brat, you won’t get what you want, but by the end of Cookiesaurus Rex, the message comes through loud and clear.

Less is More

Coming from novel writing, Amy struggled not to over-write. She would have three paragraphs of set-up and Nate would condense that into four words. And it was so much better! Look at your story. Where can you cut? How can you jump more quickly into the story? Today, many editors are looking for manuscripts that are 500 words or less!

Read Read Read

Picture books have changed a TON since you were a kid. If you haven’t browsed the aisles lately, then you’re in for a huge surprise. No longer are picture books 2,000 words. Rhyming is not necessary and, in fact, unless you’re an expert, we’d suggest you stay away from it. Picture books have a lot of dialogue, a lot of humor, unconventional situations…you really owe it to yourself to get up to date on what is being published now.

Don’t Illustrate Unless You’re an Illustrator

If you sell your manuscript, your publisher will find an illustrator who’s just right for your book. As the writer, your only job is crafting the best possible story you can. Don’t worry about the actual illustrations. Yes, you’re writing interesting visual scenes full of movement and action, but you’re only implying the final illustrated scenes. Often, writers think they need to submit their manuscript with finished artwork, but this can be a deal breaker. An editor may wonder if you, as the author, are tied to this specific illustrator and, if the art doesn’t match the editor’s vision of the final book, then he or she may just reject the entire package. Also, one of the supreme joys of selling a picture book manuscript is to see your characters brought to life by a talented professional illustrator picked by the publisher. Often this artist will interpret your words, or add a whole new level of meaning to the text, in a way that will surprise and delight you.

If you’re writing a picture book, we hope these tips will help. Remember, it’s never easy, but nothing worth the effort ever is. Cookiesaurus Rex began as a fragment of a dream about a dinosaur cookie rampaging through a little Lego village. So don’t give up, keep writing and revising, and the half-baked idea you start with just might make it into print like Cookiesaurus Rex did.

About Cookiesaurus Rex

As soon as Cookiesaurus Rex comes out of the oven, he declares that he is King of All Cookies He should be frosted before all of the standard-shaped cookies, in a nice bright green. But the other cookies are getting sprinkles, or shiny stars, or even gumdrops . . . WAIT ONE STINKIN' STOMPIN' MINUTE! Cookiesaurus wants a do-over. Problem is, he might not end up with the kind of "do" he wants. Readers will love the funny back-and-forth between this cheeky cookie and the hand that frosts him. See who gets his licks in at the end!

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  1. I like the idea of the message coming through loud and clear, and it should if the story works well. 6 months seems like a staggering amount of time to mature a PB book, but it's worth it. That makes me want to read the story now. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It does seem crazy that it can take such a long time, doesn't it? I've looked for short cuts, believe me, and never found any yet. If you do--definitely share! :) Thanks! Amy

  2. Thanks for the info! I do have a PB in the works and all this helps.

    1. Oh good! So glad if we could help. Sending good thoughts for your manuscript! Amy

  3. Thanks so much for this article. I'm always interested in reading anything about writing and publishing picture books. I have several manuscripts for picture books, I've had several children's stories published in journals and collections, but have always been told you can't get a picture book published without an agent. Has this been your experience?