Saturday, 16 September 2017

Writing Picture Books – Heather Dyer

I'm a freelance developmental editor of children's books, so I see a lot of picture books written by beginners. They are (wisely) seeking feedback before they submit their work to editors and agents.

Here are things I most often suggest:
CUT! CUT! CUT! Editing is usually about taking words out. Often the first verse or first few lines can be cut as they’re preamble to the story ‘proper’. Don’t describe anything that can be illustrated. Don’t include too much dialogue or character reflection. Show things happening in short order, briefly, and keep the language simple. Any words that aren’t serving the storyline need to be removed – they’re padding, and they slow your story down. 

Rhyming verses can be nice, but they’re difficult to translate, and publishers often depend on foreign sales to cover the cost of producing these expensive picture books. Narrative prose is easier to sell abroad.

Unless you’re a professional illustrator, don’t attempt to draw illustrations or have an illustrator friend do them for you. 

A publisher will want to have a say in the style, content and layout of illustrations, and if they want to commission your story they will find an illustrator for you. You may be asked for your opinion – but the illustrator will be given the creative freedom to come up with their own designs.

However, if there’s something in your story that needs to be illustrated because it’s crucial to the storyline – but hasn’t been mentioned in the text – then you can write a short note to the illustrator, describing what needs to be shown.

Although the illustrations and layout won’t be up to you, as author, it is very useful to distribute the text of your story across the ‘imagined’ pages of a finished picture book. This can help show you where you have too much text relating to one page or scene. It can also show you how often the ‘scene’ needs changing, since each page should contain an illustration that’s sufficiently different to the pages before and after (except where you want a double-page spread). You'll see what I mean once you start paginating your text and imagining what might appear on the corresponding page.

How many pages in a picture book? Usually 24, 32 or 40. It's always a number that’s divisible by 8, for printing reasons. The first and last pages are usually front matter or end pages, so you could think about starting your story on page 4 or 5.

You don’t need to submit this plan, just put the imaginary page number above each section of text in your manuscript. This will help the editor or agent ‘visualize’ how the story will unfold across the pages of a finished book.

For a brilliant example of how concise a picture book can be, and how the text works in tandem with the illustrations, check out Jon Klassen’s wonderful This is Not My Hat. Here’s a book that’s beautiful in its simplicity and in which the text and illustrations rely upon each other, Despite it's simplicity, it contains an ambiguous message that makes even adults think twice.

Here, the little fish is speaking. The little fish has stolen the big fish's hat, and thinks s/he's got away with it. But s/he has been spotted by the crab.

Note the lovely contradiction here between the text and the illustrations! This example demonstrates how little needs to be said in the text - and how much the illustrations can add.

In a picture book, the text and the illustrations work in tandem to tell the story. So, although you don't have to be an illustrator to write a children's book, it does help to think about how the text might work alongside the illustrations.

An author might be consulted on the illustrations, but they won't be able to dictate to the illustrator. It can feel scary relinquishing control, but it can also be wonderful to see how much atmosphere, humour and characterisation an illustrator can add to your story. It's like seeing your story come to life.

Good luck!

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


sara gethin said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I'm just starting up a local group for all types of writing and this provides a really interesting and helpful insight into creating picture books. Thank you for sharing your expertise, Heather!

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Sara, and good luck with your group.

Anne Booth said...