Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Secrets to Writing for Kids: 5 Dos and Don'ts of Picture Book Writing

Today's fantastic post on writing picture books comes from Heidi Schulz, author of the upcoming middle-grade novel Hook's Revenge (Disney-Hyperion, September 2014) and the picture book Giraffes Ruin Everything (Bloomsbury, 2016). 

I consider her an expert in the matter, because her picture books are hilarious and insightful and heart-warmingly goofy. So without further ado:

Five Dos & Don’ts of Picture Book Writing

My first picture book doesn’t come out until 2016, but I’ve had some experience with what works and what doesn’t. Last year, I was the Children’s Specialist for Wordstock Festival in Portland and was in charge of selecting picture book and middle grade authors to present. I’ve also had the opportunity to give critiques through SCBWI.

In looking over picture book texts, I’ve seen a few common mistakes. Here are five dos and don’ts to think of as you work to perfect your story.

Don’t: Limit yourself to rhyming text

I know it’s tempting to think of creating a cute story in metered rhyme. I mean, it worked for Dr. Seuss, right? However, there are some problems with this approach.

Working in rhyme limits your word choices. You might want your character, a cute runaway puppy, to be hiding in an abandoned rocket, only none of the words that rhyme with rocket seem to work. So, you end up sending him to the park. At least it rhymes with bark. Without the constraints of rhyme, your story could have gone anywhere!

Stories told in verse are incredibly difficult to pull off. The words not only have to rhyme, but the meter has to be spot on. And don’t think you can hide minor slipups—if you’re lucky, your words will be read aloud over and over. Your readers will catch errors.

Lastly, even if you are really good, I’ve heard many editors and agents say they are both weary and wary of rhyming text. So much of it floods their inboxes—a lot of it less than perfect—that they are fatigued. You’ll have to work that much harder to convince them that yours is really good.

My advice is to put your efforts into prose for your debut. Once it’s a huge success (and it will be, right?), if you still want to try your hand at rhyme, you’ll be in a better position to get the right people to look at it.

Do: Watch your word counts

Besides rhyming texts that don’t quite work, the biggest roadblock to publication I see in picture book manuscripts is word counts that are far too high.

Picture books are hard. Really hard. Brevity is an art. Keep working at it.

Shoot for between 200 – 800 words, and the shorter the better.

Remember that the words will only tell half the story. What can be told through illustrations and not text? Do we need to know that the girl’s shirt is blue or can the illustrator make that clear? (By the way, the illustrator might make the shirt purple. Unless it needs to be blue for plot purposes, that’s okay. This will be his/her story, too.)

Once you think your text is short enough, give it another look. I bet you can trim even more.

Don’t: Find your own illustrator

With traditional publishing, nearly all of the time, the publisher will choose the illustrator. Focus on the words. Don’t worry about finding someone to illustrate them.

If you are already working as an author/illustrator team with someone, have a discussion: What if the publisher wants the text but not the art? What if they love the illustrator but not the author? Be prepared for those possibilities.

Same story for those of you who are both an author and illustrator: If the publisher likes your text, but wants to bring in their own illustrator, will you be okay with that? Think it through before querying. There is no “right” answer here, but knowing your own mind before the pressure is on is worth a lot.

Do: Become familiar with current, successful picture books on the market

My favorite picture book as a child was The Velveteen Rabbit. That book is wonderful and I still love it, but it is way too long for today’s market.

Don’t compare your current manuscript with past books. Look at what works today for examples, then go out and create something fresh and new with that knowledge.

Don’t: Focus your story around a moral or lesson

This is another example of something that may have worked in the past, but doesn’t today. It’s okay if your story teaches something—I’d argue that all the best stories do—but the lesson shouldn’t be the focus. If you find yourself thinking or saying, “The moral of this story is…” take another look and revise.

One bonus Do for writers of all kinds:

Do: Be Brave

Writing is hard. Sharing what you have written can be excruciating. Anything less than positive feedback might sting, but this is the gauntlet through which we must pass to get to the other side. Be brave. Keep writing. Keep revising. You’ll get there.

I can’t wait to see you on the shelves!

Photo: Michelle Wonderling 2013

Heidi Schulz lies to children for fun and profit. Her debut novel for middle grade readers, HOOK’S REVENGE, will be published by Disney•Hyperion on September 16, 2014. A sequel, HOOK’S REVENGE: THE PIRATE CODE, will follow in fall 2015. Bloomsbury Kids will publish her picture book debut, GIRAFFES RUIN EVERYTHING, in 2016.

You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, or visit her at her website.

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