My very first picture book submission was probably 2500 words long, and it was full of action. When the editor rang to say that they loved it, I was overjoyed. Yippee! A few weeks later, an envelope arrived, and inside was my story, stripped down to its bare bones. What? Where was all my clever stuff? In the gorgeous illustrations, of course, as I later discovered.
My second story was much more trimmed. I spent hours making sure that it was as short as I could make it, but it still came back heavily edited. ‘Sorry, the illustrations don’t allow much space,’ was my editor’s excuse. But when I saw the pleasing result in the finished picture book, I began to get the message. A picture book is a story visualized by three people: the writer, the editor and the illustrator.
Being a quick learner, I now devised a system of twelve floating computer boxes into which I fitted my story. It took ages to do, but I was always happy with the final result before it went off. And I grew to accept that changes were inevitable, often to accommodate a particular illustrator’s style.
But as I became more and more experienced, I also became less and less spontaneous. As I fiddled and fussed, I began to wonder: Do publishers actually want thoroughly honed stories? The editor will be looking for something new and exciting, and the story must first and foremost be capable of inspiring the illustrator, so that she can produce her best and most imaginative work.
So, would it be better not to be quite so fussy when sending off a text and to leave a bit of the fun for the editor to edit and for the illustrator to be excited by?
An editor once told me that they were happy to receive ideas which, together, we could turn into stories. I have never taken her up on that invitation, but it makes me wonder whether there isn’t something to be said for the style of my very first story. Do we take away some of the spontaneous fun by honing our stories too much and making them too thin? And are editors irritated by too many illustration notes? Do they cloud their vision?
I asked some of the Picture Book Denners what they do:
Abie Longstaff said: ‘Although I do not illustrate my books, I have studied illustration and I draw in my own time. Due to this the look of the book; the spreads, pacing and colour, is very high in my mind when I write. I always draw out full thumbnails for every book to help me get the delivery and speed right. I never send these to the publisher (they are just for me) but, because I have considered this angle, I do end up writing illustration notes. I know some publishers do not like this, but I have been lucky in that both of my main publishers are happy to have input and have included me at early stages of roughs or character designs.
So, I send out my text in one document marking the page breaks for 13 spreads and one extra page. I include notes of the main relevant points for illustration (such as where I have set up a joke between the text/picture, or where I have saved words by putting something in the illustration instead of the text) but not real detail such as colours (unless particularly relevant). I put the notes in italics. I do a cover page with my name, my agent's name, word count and age range for the book. Sometimes I play with the text, setting out parts of it as a newspaper article, or making patterns with the words if these kind of things are relevant to the story.’
Pippa Goodhart has a different approach: ‘The simple, but not very useful, answer is that the text should be presented in whatever way will make the clearest read of the story, with pictures in mind, for a potential editor.
I think that the best way to present a picture book text varies enormously according to the text and the story. Sometimes there is no need to specify anything about pictures because their content is obvious, and the treatment of that content is up to the illustrator. But sometimes there are parts of the story that I want shown in the illustrations, but which aren’t told in the text, so illustration notes are then necessary. I tend to put those notes in italics, and they may take the form of general notes before the story text begins (‘NB Scruffy is a toy rabbit, and the action takes place in a child’s bedroom’ kind of thing), or may be individual notes for each spread (‘The elephant is peeping out from behind the watering can; seen by us but not by Archie’, kind of thing). I play with different presentations, but at the moment am favouring having the story text in a colour distinct from the illustration notes. I want the editor to be able to read the text uninterrupted in order to really experience the qualities of the text, but to have the illustration notes handy in case he/she is wondering how things might look.’
Lynne Garner agrees: ‘I set mine out already broken down into the page spreads, sometimes with the odd illustration suggestion. That way my editor can see how I see the book flowing from one page to the next.’
Jane Clarke ‘I send my text in spreads and try not to put in notes to illustrators unless they’re absolutely necessary to make sense of the words.’
Malachy Doyle is very specific:
1. ‘Finished, and as close to perfect as you possibly can.
2. Less than 500 words.
3. Double spaced (or one and a half)
4. Set into a maximum of sixteen blocks of text. (preferably 12 to 14)
5. With illustration guidelines, if necessary. (keep them to a minimum).
6. Only rhyming if the story absolutely needs it (and you’re a brilliant rhymester).
7. There needs to be an ‘aah!’ page.
8. Finish with a smile.’
All are brilliant picture book writers, and the lesson I have drawn from this is that the more polished your story, the more chance you have of getting it published.
Do you agree? I shall be most interested to hear what you do. And are there any editors or agents out there who would like to put their point of view? What do you want to see?
Thank you very much indeed to everyone who contributed so generously to this blog. I couldn't have written it without you.
Ragnhild Scamell writes picture books and early readers