There will be homework! If you chose to do it, great, if you want to send it to me for my perusal please do and if I get the time to get back to you then we'll both be doing well.
Picture Book Writing Course Part 1
What Makes A Good Picture Book
True story; Dr Seuss was at a dinner party when he met a Brain surgeon, the brain surgeon said ‘oh, are you that guy who writes those little books for children? I’ve always thought that when I had a free afternoon one Saturday I’d love to write one. Dr Seuss replied, ‘ ‘Ahh yes, and I’ve always thought when I had a free afternoon one Saturday I’d love to do a little brain surgery’
I'm not suggesting that what I do is brain surgery (it's actually more like rocket science;)
It is also an EXTREMELY competitive field. I spoke with a small publisher a few years back who told me they get 100 unsolicited (i.e. not through an agent) manuscripts a week - of which 2 a year might get published. It took me 2 years of hard slog to get illustration work and 8 years of writing picture book manuscripts before one was published - and this is quicker than many.
So why do so many people think they can do it?
1) Every parent/grandparent/teacher/aunt with a grain of imagination has made up stories to adoring children and thinks they would be good enough to be published. Unfortunately kids love the attention of anyone making up stories for them whether the stories are any good or not. We all have the ability to make up a story, but this doesn't make us all writers. I can make beans on toast - doesn’t make me a chef!
2) People think their book will change the world! People often get into writing children’s books with projects they are truly passionate about - pets, family anecdotes or memories, or a moral they wish to impart and then take it terribly personally when they hit their first wall and refuse to compromise or take advice.
3) People think it’s easy because unlike a novel, it’s short! But just because there aren’t many words doesn’t mean there isn’t much story. Children's author Mem Fox once compared writing picture books to ‘writing War and Peace in Haiku’.
A slight exaggeration, maybe, but one of the most difficult books I've ever written is Zoo Girl - and it's told in only 20 words! But trying to get the story right first, with emotional ups and downs, cliff-hangers, a strong beginning, middle and end, character depth etc. and then condense that down and tell as much as I could in the pictures rather than the words was an immense challenge. It's easier to ramble. As this blog entry is proving.
4) People think it pays well - true if you have a big hit like The Gruffalo but this is exTREMEly unlikely and many books go out of print after their first print run so the writer gets no royalties and may be paid an advance of just £1000 - £3000.
Why do most people fail?
The fact is that most would-be children’s writers have no idea what they’re doing. They simply haven’t taken the time to learn about writing for children. Let's face it, you wouldn't try to fly a fighter jet without first taking flying lessons. So why do so many people think they can write a children's book without first learning how? (I admit this is a terrible analogy - no one, so far as I know, has ever died a horrible plummeting death from trying to write a picture book without the proper training, but you get my point.)
So what’s the secret? Simple - In order to get your picture book published, you MUST find out what publishers are after and then give them EXACTLY what they want. And, the good news is, children's book publishers are desperate for good children's books, because, as I’ve said, most of what they receive is rubbish!
Children’s books like anything else are a business (a really fun one, but a business none the less) and as such we need to be creating products which will be appealing to the target audience - not just the children (although they should ALWAYS be at the forefront of our thinking) but the publishers, editors, booksellers that all come before a child even sees it. Hopefully in this course you'll get a strong idea of what publishers want, and how to create it and present it to them.
It's also worth saying at this point that if you can overcome the odds, do the research and break into the business - it's one of the most rewarding, enjoyable and fun jobs around!
This first session is What Makes a Good Picture Book? - If you don’t know this, how are you going to create your own one?
The only way to do this is to research - know your market, love your market, visit libraries and children's departments in book shops, start collecting picture books that catch your eye (charity shops are a great source). If you don’t love children’s books, if you think they're beneath you, if you're scared of being stared at as you spend hours in the children's section of the library, leave now, this profession is not for you.
Different kinds of picture books:
I regularly get emails from people who have written 'a children's book' and when I ask what kind of children's book and what age it's aimed at they're a bit stumped, or the material in no way goes along with the age they tell me it's aimed at so you need to learn the difference between... mass-market activity books, board and novelty books, Early Readers, picture books, YA novels etc. etc. You'll get to know these by visiting those libraries and bookshops again and seeing what's in each section, holding them, looking at the blurb on the back, etc.
In this course it's high-end trade Picture Books we're interested in - these are generally - 32pages, 12-14 full colour spreads, with full-colour, quality illustrations, and original tales told in less than 600 words.
But within picture books there are of course different genres, for example;
Humourous (eg. Dave, The Monkey With the Bright Blue Bottom, Olivia, Naked Trevor)
Action adventure (eg. Gruffalo, Where the wild things are, )
Snuggly bed-time story (eg. Guess How Much I Love you, I love you Daddy, Cub's First Winter)
and lots more besides, and many books of course span the whole lot. But it's worth thinking about what kind of book you want to write and which market you'd be aiming at.
Children - the same age or a little older than the target audince (which for a picture book is usually between 3-6 but can be much wider)
Animals - usually young animals or an older animal with a child-like outlook
Creatures - monsters, fairies, robots etc.
Adults - very rarely the main character (Percy the Park keeper is an exception but he looks quite chubby and child-like! There are other notable exceptions but i think best to avoid as your main character) ok to include parents, teachers, doctors etc. - Adults children have come across in their own lives.
Inanimate Objects - Again, there are notable exceptions but generally I would avoid writing your picture book about Simon the Stapler or Billy Banana. It's old-fashioned, it's dull, it's of little interest to publishers.
The important thing is your picture book needs at least one character the child reader can identify with - so whether it's a robot monkey or bespectacled duck make sure they make choices and deal with emotions like a 5 year old child would.
So what makes a book work well?
THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS TO EVERY RULE HERE by generally a great picture book must be;
Original - publishers are looking for a new hook or concept
Well written - we'll go into more detail about this next week but each word must be perfect.
Beginning, middle and end - Straight in, exciting progression, pleasing ending
Fit nicely into 12/13 spreads with action on each spread
Attractive and entertaining to children and adults
Children/main character solving their own problems, not adults stepping in to 'save the day'
A Simple idea told clearly
We will be looking at this list and going through it in more detail next week but for now;
1. Look at a selection of (fairly recent) picture books and as you read them and study the illustrations ask the following questions;
What kind of book is it (funny, adventure etc.)
What’s the basic plot?
What is the atmosphere of the book and how is that conveyed?
Why and how do the images and text work together?
Is the book appropriate for its audience? Why? Is there a character the child can relate to?
What is the child meant to gain from the book, if anything?
Is there an underlying message or moral to the book?
How does the narrative work - is there a definite beginning, middle and end?
2. Come up with 3 vague picture book ideas - include a main character and a rough plot line.
Next week - How to Write a Picture Book