Tuesday, May 09, 2017

How to Write a Picture Book - Part 1

After life ‘challenges’ in recent months, this blog is now back in focus and I look forward to posting more regularly, first by providing a series on creating picture books.

How I wish that ‘get rich quick’ internet entrepreneurs wouldn’t perpetuate the myth that picture books, because they have so few words, can be written with ease by absolutely anyone in a couple of hours.

It would be wonderful if it were true.

Published authors recognise that of all genres of book, picture books are the most fiendishly difficult to write—they’re far harder to write successfully than novels for adults or older children.

Apprentice picture book writers are usually too easily satisfied with what they have written, they create works that are not ‘industry standard' and consequently more than 95% of texts never get published. When schools ask children to write a picture book text in a week or two, they cannot expect perfection – only a starting point.

You must be as professional as the most established creators. Mem Fox and other well-known authors who sell acclaimed books by the hundreds of thousands will often have spent 3 years or more refining the text of a single 300 word book before it is sent to publishers. 50 drafts would not be uncommon. En route to completing the 190 word best-selling book Where Is The Green Sheep?, Mem spent days, hour after hour working on another draft …another draft …another draft. It wasn’t finished in a year. If you were able to tap in to authors’ thoughts after their books are finished, I know that many would be muttering ‘I am never ever going to attempt to write another picture book’ …though they may almost immediately have an irresistible idea and start writing again. Why? Because there is no greater joy than creating a book that children adore.

I've been to innumerable talks by well-published experts, read text-books on the subject, paid for courses, talked to professionals, downloaded advice from websites, paid editors for appraisals of my own stories, and more. They all try to be as helpful as possible, but coming up with the right words in the right places is still a daunting task. 

Fortunately I managed to get it right for Once a Creepy Crocodile which was Shortlisted for the ‘Book of the Year 2015’ by Australian Speech Pathologists, so I hope I will be able to shorten the length of your apprenticeship and I will concentrate on providing advice for writing for traditional publishers such as Penguin and Scholastic who get books into bricks and mortar stores, libraries and schools and who pay you money. You do not have to pay a cent to be published by this kind of ‘Traditional Publisher’.

Are you still eager to write a picture book for publication?

Relax. You have a lot to learn and research.

The publishing industry works on a different time frame to everyone else. There is never a rush and lots more goes on behind the scenes than you'd ever imagine. They will want your story this year, next year or in 5 years’ time if it’s a good story - but you only get one chance to submit it to each publisher, so it needs to be the best it can be.

If you are a writer, you do not have to find or pay for an illustrator. A publisher will want freedom to organise for your words to be illustrated by an artist of their own choice. If you are unknown, they’ll probably choose one who is famous and with loyal fans and a track record for high sales. Their aim is for your story to make them money – all decisions are commercial.

But when you have completed and perfected your story, if you know a very famous illustrator who would like to illustrate it, when you send your words you can tell the publisher that they would like to be considered.

Get used to the fact that in traditional publishing, you’ll have no input into the illustration process. This is very very VERY hard for an author to accept, but it’s how the best and most loved books are usually created. An American art director I met said that she chooses illustrators to create what no one else would imagine from the words. You must leave space in your words for the illustrator to weave their own magic.

Nina Rycroft illustrated Once a Creepy Crocodile. I didn’t see any art and we had no contact until it was finished. Then I suggested a tiny change, but the publisher didn’t allow it. Nina was probably never told and maybe doesn’t know that. But I love what she’s done and her imagination. The words at the beginning say:

Once a creepy crocodile crawled toward a river bank,

He spied a baby brolga by a bottle-brush tree,

And his tail wagged and wiggled while he winked and grinned and giggled, saying

‘Please come and join me for afternoon tea.’

‘No!’ squealed Echidna. ‘Stop!’ croaked the tree-frog.

‘Run,’ cried Koala, ‘he’ll eat you, don’t you see?’

But the brolga danced and pranced in a trance toward the water saying,

‘Tea is very tempting – thanks for choosing me.’ ... ... ...

I imagined a cunning crocodile that was scary. Nina drew the croc in a Fred Astaire pose tempting the brolga with fancy dance moves, and the brolga responding as Ginger Rogers or any ballroom dancer. And it’s absolutely wonderful.


I imagined all the animals running away. Nina has depicted them all having a lovely tea party at the end (spoiler alert ...except for the snake that the crocodile eats). Not too scary for little children.

Does it matter that the illustrations are not as I imagined? No! They’re superb. It’s just not ‘my story’ – it has become ‘our story’, including the art director’s story.

When self-publishers pay illustrators (illustrators need to be properly paid at a sensible hourly rate – they have mortgages and the shops they visit require real money before handing over the goods) and the writer controls what is drawn, the book never reaches its full potential.

The next post will be on the first steps in story creation…

Hoping that I can help you

Peter Taylor

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