Thursday, February 06, 2020

What Novelists Can Learn from Studying Picture Books

By Sherry Howard, @SherLHoward

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Writing is writing no matter what the genre or market, and we can learn a lot by studying what other writers--and markets--have done. Sherry Howard shares thoughts on what novelists can learn from studying picture books.

Sherry Howard lives with her children and silly dogs in Middletown, Kentucky. Sherry is the author of the picture book ROCK AND ROLL WOODS, with a starred Kirkus review. Her poems and stories have appeared in multiple journals and anthologies. She also writes for the educational market, with about a dozen books.

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Take it away Sherry...

Many people know Robert Fulghum's thoughts on learning all the important stuff in Kindergarten. As an educator and parent, I felt that many of his tenets worked well all through life. If you internalize “don’t hit people” it applies to so many scenarios beyond Kindergarten, right? It might have even kept you out of jail.

I have similar thoughts about studying picture books, and how they can help us with all of our writing. What I learned through the study of picture books helped my writing all around.

What does picture book (PB) writing have to do with novel writing? Everything!!!

I’ve spent a lot of money and time improving my writing. I’ve heard cynicism about writing across the age range of kidlit, although some successful authors succeed at multiple levels. I’m not going to argue that point, but I will defend how the craft of writing picture books helps you in writing longer books. At least, picture book craft helped me.

Consider the page turn. 

In a PB, that page turn should entice the reader to keep reading, turn the page. In the same sense, a carefully crafted chapter ending can entice an older child to keep reading, desperate to know what happens next. 

Sometimes, it can be done more subtly in adult fiction. Children are more sophisticated readers than we often give them credit for, but in kidlit those chapter endings might be more concrete page turns than in adult fiction. If you can stop at the end of a chapter of a book you’re reading and not feel a push to go on, maybe there could have been a better-crafted chapter ending. It took studying kidlit for me to internalize that.

Lyrical language and poetic technique are much talked about in children’s books. 

In their (starred!) review of my picture book, ROCK AND ROLL WOODS, the Kirkus reviewer mentions my “clever, onomatopoeic text.” I don’t use quite as much onomatopoeia anywhere beyond picture books, but I try to apply the same standards for word inclusion. 

In a picture book, every word has to earn its place because the word count is so low. 

In works beyond the five-year-old range, I also listen for the impact of each word. My personal best tool for that is the read-aloud feature on the iPad. Having the text read back in that robotic voice helps focus on each word. Yes, it takes time! It’s my almost final step and well worth the time!

Janice has a great piece on the rule of three, and how that can be helpful in your writing. That is a rule widely respected in picture book writing that I find myself using in all of my writing.

Structure in a picture book is critical. 

Choosing the right structure for the story you’re telling can make or break a story. Placing the beginning, middle, and end within the appropriate number of spreads is critical. 

Structure in a longer manuscript might actually be easier to figure out. A longer manuscript, in my humble opinion and shared by many, is more forgiving than a structure that has only fourteen spreads to play out, like a picture book. Off a page or two for your mid-point in a long manuscript—who will notice? Flaws in picture book pacing flashes like a roadside flare. 

(Here's more on 6 Ways to Structure (and Plot) Your Novel)

Voice, story arc, and heart are important in picture books. 

They are important in other writing too. Studying and understanding those elements in picture books helps understand and improve them in your other writing.

I’m not recommending that all writers need to study picture books to improve your writing. But I am asking you to give due respect to writers of picture books. And maybe learn from them a little. 

(Here's more on Can You Hear Me Now? Developing Your Narrative Voice)

There are so many ways besides classes that we can study writing. The study of picture books helps you value words and structure and heart. The study of poetry does the same. The study of books you love, dissecting them like a corpse, can light a bulb for you. In my own study of picture book writing, I’ve loved the unintended consequence of improving my understanding of writing in general!

Everything that’s important in picture books can be applied to longer work, in a different way. The attention to detail you learn is transferable. Now, let’s all have a cookie and read a picture book! Followed by a nap—kudos to Robert Fulghum for his brilliance!

About Rock and Roll Woods

Kuda is a bit of a grump who doesn't like change. So when he wakes up to find new neighbors and loud, strange noises in his woods, he is not happy. Will his desire to be with his friends overcome his objections to loud sounds? And might Kuda's courage help him discover that new things and rock and roll music can be pretty great? Featuring helpful backmatter about Sensory Integration and insider jokes for parents with autistic kids.

Amazon Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound |

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