Thursday, 2 February 2017


When I was little, my sister kept chameleons. We used to find them in plumbago hedges as we walked to school or on the peach trees in our garden – their tiny feet clutching on to the finer twigs. We put them on our school blazers which were royal blue, to see them change from brilliant green to dark navy. A boy who walked with us dared us to put the baby ones on our tongues. I don’t think we ever did, but one thing I discovered – chameleons being cold blooded are sun lovers, and were happy to be coaxed onto the warmth of our hands on a cold morning. The other thing I discovered by clicking my fingers on either side of their heads, they could swivel their eyes not just in all directions, but independently too.

Changing colour and looking backwards and forwards at the same time is an attribute for any writer – particularly a picture book writer. While doing some ‘track change’ edits this week-end for a particular editor, it dawned on me I should’ve been talking marketing with the same editor on another book, a totally different sort of story, with totally different type of illustrations.

With picture books there are always projects happening concurrently. I began running through the various picture books projects I had on the go ­– the number was eight – all at different stages, many with different editors, most with different illustrators, some in that crucial stage of being accepted, some still looking for a home and some just a nebulous idea resting in the depths of some inchoate part of my brain. My eyes are certainly swivelling in all directions. (actually not so well at the moment as I’ve just had an eye op with a graft glued in place where a pterygium was removed)

Being in the business of picture books is mercurial. One can’t count a project complete until the finished book in one's hands. With illustrators and writers working more closely, it’s not unusual to be asked to cut whole sections of what one might’ve thought was ‘done and dusted’ text, because the illustration needs more space. And with editors changing careers fairly regularly it’s not uncommon to have two or even three different editors work on a project, all with very different opinions. Being able to ‘change colour’ is essential. One can’t be too precious. But knowing when to stand firm and when to withdraw, is crucial too.

So a few things I’ve learnt about writing picture books along the way:
  1. Be flexible and prepared to change. A great collaboration will be the result. 
  2. Keep the word count low – 200 to 800 at the very most. It’s a picture book after all.
  3. Keep in mind the 12 spread concept and try to visualize the story in 12 bites. (after it’s written... as at the start, you want to remain spontaneous) The illustrator might have a different idea for the division of spreads but at least you’ll have thought about it. It’s not a matter of splitting the text into 12 equal parts but more about 12 images/concepts that carry the story forward in a logical way.
  4. Most book designers have years of experience and will come up with a concept that will enhance the story. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about fonts and page turns and endpapers. Again flexiblity is paramount. 
  5. And lastly, the key to a good picture book is the best text that brings out the best in an illustrator. Like chameleons your books will change in whatever situation they find themselves.
All this was contemplated while walking on the beach with the new moon Spring Tide receding in the southern hemisphere on a sunny morning, when even the surfers were avoiding these crashing dumpers. Working with picture books has brought me enormous pleasure. Along the way I've learnt from some truly wonderful editors and designers, worked with amazingly talented illustrators, had the backing & encouragement of an extremely knowledgable agent, and had enthusiastic foreign rights people getting my books into languages around the world...  and most of all I've had fun! Maybe I'm just high on ozone!

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa at low Spring tide on a sunny day.
Twitter: @dihofmeyr
Two new picture books out later this year:

MY DADDY IS A SILLY MONKEY illustrated by Carol Thompson published by Otterbarry Books

THE GLASSMAKER'S DAUGHTER illustrated by Jane Ray published by Frances Lincoln


Hilary Hawkes said...

Creating picture books sounds a thoroughly rewarding and absorbing endeavor. Loved reading your post.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks Hilary. It IS absorbing... not exactly lucrative and has got less so over the years... but it's far more collaborative than working on novel. I'm finding the YA market so tricky right now. So its great to be involved creatively with a band of people.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

PS love your image... suggests holidays and relaxing reading a book!