Sunday, 1 March 2015

More tips on writing children’s picture books, by Paeony Lewis

Right now I'm in the midst of tutoring a regular adult course on writing children’s picture books. Every week, two students read to us. They bring these books from home so we can experience a variety of tastes (sometimes the books aren't to my taste, which is good in an educational way!). We also experience a variety of voices and this is helpful in reminding us that some people relish reading aloud, and some don’t.


In real life, adults (parents, grandparents, carers, teachers, librarians, editors, etc.) won’t necessarily read our books the way we’re used to hearing them read in our heads or aloud to ourselves (or the cat and hamster). Maybe these adults won’t emphasise the ‘right’ bits, or they might use daft voices, or they rush or sound wearied after a long day. The book belongs to them – we have lost control.

When we write we can stress specific words in bold or large type, but the story can’t rely on a specific way of reading and we can't give adults voice auditions before they buy the book. So even without our control, a story needs to be good enough to be read in a variety of ways.

However, as a writer, when we read in our heads we always read our story a certain way. Therefore, here’s Tip 1: Find one or two friends who’ll read your manuscript TO YOU. They won’t necessarily read it how you think it ‘should’ be read. There are sure to be clunky bits. Don’t correct them! Go away and rewrite.

Listening to the students read in class also reminded me that as adults we forget what it’s like to sit quietly and listen to a grown-up share a picture book. The child may not be able to read and therefore, despite the illustrations, has to concentrate on the oral story. Illustrations help, but the child has to retain a lot of information.

I now appreciate how tricky this can be because when the students read the picture books on the writing course, they are too far away for me to be able to follow the words. Yikes! I found concentrating on the oral words would sometimes strain my brain (some of that may be because I have the attention span of a flickering light).



Whilst listening, several times I realised I hadn't begun to concentrate and missed the very start of the story. Or I wasn't captivated and my mind wandered. Plus it made me appreciate short texts that don't ramble. What was essential for me, apart from an interesting story, was a clear structure and patterning. A familiar pattern and some repetition helped to drive the story along and reinforce the story in my head, making it easier for me to focus. Mind you, too much unvarying repetition became tedious and I also stopped listening - sorry!

Tip 2: Repetition can help glue the storyline together and provide familiarity and fun. However, don’t overdo it and a lot of repetition requires some variety in the way it’s presented, and the occasional break in pace.

I shouldn't be surprised by this need for a beguiling story combined with clarity. Long before they were written down, everyone listened to traditional tales shared verbally around the fire. These tales needed a clear structure to be understood, often using the rule of three, and it made them easier to learn too. In addition, the characters in traditional tales are often given simple labels such as the prince, the queen, the old woman, the giant, the traveller or the pig or the fox. Alternatively, they had memorable monikers, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. It’s easier to keep track of what’s happening when there are labels, especially when there are several characters. I hadn't thought of it before, but perhaps it’s another legitimate reason for labelling some picture book characters Mother Bear, Baby Bunny, Little Grey Fox, etc.

 


TIP 3: Remember the oral traditional tales and how a clear structure, patterning and repetition help the listener to follow the story. And try to avoid lots of complicated or similar names.

I suppose these three extra tips appear obvious, and they are, but I've found I can 'know' something without absorbing it, if that makes any sense? Then something happens (like having to really listen!) and the knowledge sinks in deeper. Anyway, happy writing, regardless of tips. There are no rigid rules - just what works for you and the publisher and the illustrator and the bookseller and the book buyer and the reader and listener...

Paeony Lewis
www.paeonylewis.com

Plus please click here for a list of links to my other blog posts on writing picture books.




19 comments:

  1. Another great post, Paeony!

    Getting someone else to read your text aloud to you is an excellent tip, although these days it does not have to be another human! I use my Mac to read all my texts back to me using its "text to speech” function, which you can find under the “Dictation and speech” control panel in the system settings. When I first started doing this, years ago, the Mac had a rather robotic US-accent, but the available voices have become more human and localised over the years and the “Serena” voice I now use has a remarkably natural-sounding UK-accented delivery. It gives a very impartial reading with an even speed and emphasis on each word, but puts appropriate pauses in for punctuation. I find it particularly useful for checking the scansion and meter of rhyming texts.

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    1. Many thanks, Jonathan! That's interesting about the dictation and speech control panel on your Mac. I'll have a look on my pc, though I haven't come across it before in Windows 7/Microsoft and I don't have a mic - but I haven't been looking so perhaps the option is there. Thanks.

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    2. I'd be surprised if there wasn't something similar on Windows. You don't need a microphone for "Text to Speech", just a loudspeaker.

      I'm slightly dyslexic, so having the computer read the text aloud is a boon to me as I often don't notice written errors , but can always spot them when the computer reads them aloud.

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    3. Ah ha! I have found something and activated it, but with Windows 7 and Word 2010 there's just one voice and it's an American robot that stumbles over certain sounds. Interesting though - thanks, Jonathan.

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    4. Also interested to know this function exist, will try it, Jonathan

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  2. Great tip, Jonathan, and what an interesting blog, Paeony. Great tip about getting friends to read back to you - and noting if and where they have difficulty with your words. And a very interesting point about memorable traditional tales, too. They tend to have some repetition - either scattered through the story and slightly varying - 'What big ears you have Mrs Wolf...What big eyes you have Mr Wolf' - or 'they are used as a sort of chorus punctuating the story - 'I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down'.

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    1. Many thanks, Moira. Yes! Red Riding Hood includes wonderful patterning/repetition - I'd forgotten. Mind you, I feel that overly shortened versions of The Three Little Pigs run the risk of getting too monotonous ( or maybe I'm being stroppy because I always felt the pigs were really mean to the wolf!).

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  3. Fab tips - really useful. Thanks Paeony :)

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  4. Hearing others read your texts often gives you an insight into where you can change and strengthen them. I use an app on my iPhone to hear how texts sound when I read them aloud but as I always read them in the same way it is useful to hear how other people read and where they emphasise words, especially with rhyming picture book texts. Thank you for a great post Paeony :)

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    1. Good idea, I should check out apps for my phone. Thanks, Catherine.

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  5. Great tips, all around, Paeony. Your tip #1 is especially important for those who write in verse, as I do. Having several others read drafts of my stories (and poems) has been very eye (or rather ear) opening. Inflections, accents, tone can all vary and I fully agree with you that we want our stories to be able to be read and enjoyed to the fullest audience possible. With rhyme, especially, I try to use sparingly words that I know are pronounced differently depending on dialects or accents. Examples: roof, donkey, paw.

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    1. Thanks, Laura. Maybe there's a series of computer voices in different regional accents?!

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    2. The Mac does offer a range of English speaking voices with different accents including, Australian, Indian, Irish, Scottish, US as well as regular English. Most of these have to be downloaded, but are available for free under the "customise" option under the "Text to speech" settings control panel.

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    3. That is true, but I do find those voices rather stilted. I prefer to seek out real people with varying dialects. =)

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    4. They're not quite as good as genuine human voices, but I'm not sure genuine humans would show the same indefatigability when asked to read the same story out for the umpteenth time! ;)

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  6. Interesting post and some great tips from everyone. Will be sending a link to this post to my picture book students as I'm sure they'll find it useful to.

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  7. Nice post, and a great idea about getting someone else to read it out loud. Not sure how easy that is to manage, writing and illustrating is not a social job and also family and friends would be quite likely be embarrassed.
    But i think that just the knowledge that somebody else is going to read it back to me would make me rush back to the text and do a paranoid rewrite!
    The computer robot voice is a good idea Jonathan, thanks, haven't messed with that for years, I made it read out well known poems as I recall. . . Fun. . . ;-)

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    1. Ha ha, yes it's embarrassing to listen to somebody read your story, Jonathan! Cringe, cringe. But good for us?! Thanks.

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