Wednesday 18 May 2016

What's the story, how do you do it, what is a picture book? - Linda Strachan

It's a srange thing.
When you don't do something for a while it is easy to think that you have forgotten all that you knew, or that your knowledge is not as useful as it once was. It is almost as if it has filtered out of your head into the air.  But when someone asks a question about it, everything rushes back in.

 I spent a wonderful 10 years working beside the lovely and talented illustrator, Sally J. Collins, on the Hamish McHaggis books.

It was 2012 when the 10th and latest of the Hamish McHaggis series was published, but when I was asked last spring if I would write a short Hamish story for our local children, to put in the Gala Day programme, I slipped right into it as if I had never stopped. I wrote a story called  Hamish McHaggis and the Gala Day Mystery.

I am often asked questions about writing picture books, and the other day I was asked -

'Do you think 1200 words for a childrens' picture book (aged 3-8 years), is too long?'

 It is an interesting question on different levels. 

Picture books are wonderful in so many ways and often deceptively clever.  They can make you laugh or stop and think, and some may bring you to tears.  Their simple format, short text and gloriously colourful images are often less appreciated because they are destined to be read to small children and many adults consider anything for toddlers is simple and would of course be 'child's play' to write.

But when you break down the requirements for writing them it soon becomes obvious that they are anything but simple and to make it all the more complicated you can always find something that a successful author has written that breaks all the 'rules'.

The question above is not so easy to answer. or at least the answer is not as simple as it seems at first.

let's take the age range. (3-8 years)
Normally a picture book is aimed at 3-5 year olds but they are often enjoyed by children much younger than 3 years.  Many years later favourite picture books are often well loved and remembered
by parents. But by the time children are 8 years old, sadly they often feel they are too grown up for picture books. They want meatier stuff to exercise their newly acquired reading skills, perhaps scary adventures or funny books, stories that involve kids their own age or older.

One of the best pieces of advice for a new picture book writer is to spend time reading picture books
  • Looking at why they work (or don't work) as a story
  • Looking at structure of the story, the way it begins and ends
  • At the way it makes you feel
  • Looking for the lesson it slips in without seeming to teach
  • At the use of words
  • At the use of rhythm, occasional rhyme
  • Reading them out loud to see if the words trip you up.
  The general advice from publishers is to avoid rhyme, or at least not every line.  Yes, I know you cna point to  dozen or more bestselling picture books that rhyme, but if you look closely at the best of them you will notice that the rhyme is never pedestrian, the rhythm, text or storyline is never bent out of shape to make it fit the rhyme.

All rules can be broken, but only with skill and experience so best to try to stick to them, at least at the beginning.

 You need to be aware that it is not a merely story with some pictures, the pictures have to be part of the story. As you are considering each double page spread, you need to have an idea in your head of what the pictures will show, and let them tell part of the story.

 New writers often forget that and think the words tell the story and the pictures are just for something to look at. The best picture books are an integration of both words and pictures working together.

A picture book is normally 12-14 double page spreads (that is when the book is open - across those two pages is a double page spread)  You have to make sure that the story is long enough to last, and not too long so that it crams too much into the end.  Each spread has to be visualised because the illustrator has to have something new and interesting to illustrate over each spread.

   Sometimes there are things in the pictures that contradict the text, children love it when they spot that.

How long should it be?
 Some say 1000 words but many picture books are a lot less, and some are a fair bit more.When you think about word count it should be after you have been though it time and again, pruning, polishing and editing,  so that each and every word in the text has earned its place on the page - that every word is the right word. After that go back and do it again.

It does not have to be over elaborate language but don't think it has to be simple either. Even very young children understand a lot more complicated vocabulary than you would expect, when taken in the context of the story.

Then put it away and go back to it a week or two (even better a month or two) later and read it out loud, better still give it to someone who is not very good at reading out loud and see if they trip up on your words.

 A picture book is meant to be read aloud so if it is difficult to read without stumbling, it is not yet good enough.

It was a simple enough question but the answer is anything but simple.  Look closely at a picture book, you may be astounded when you realise the work that has gone into it.

Picture Book Den is a great blog all about writing picture books and well worth a visit.


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook - Writing For Children.
Linda is currently Chair of the SOAiS - Society of Authors in Scotland 

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me . 
She is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her best selling series Hamish McHaggis is illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby.

blog:  Bookwords


Susan Price said...

Very useful and interesting post, Linda. Having just produced, with my illustrator brother, a new version of Three Billy Goats Gruff, I can vouch for the fact that making a picture-book is HARD! Every bit as difficult, if not more so, than writing for any other age, including adult.
Anyone who thinks it's easy because 'it's short and just for kids' is an idiot.

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Sue

I think some people just have a kneejerk reaction,

Short, few words and for kids = easy peasy!

Lynne Benton said...

Well said, Linda, and Sue too. This post should be read by all the people who think it's so easy to write stories for very young children in very few words! Whenever I give a talk to adults they are always amazed at how much work goes into deceptively simple stories. I have another such talk coming up before too long - may I quote some of your blog to them, please Linda?

Linda Strachan said...

Thank you, Lynne
I'd be delighted if you wanted to quote from it.