Thursday, 29 August 2013

Getting to the heart of a picture book - Linda Strachan

How do you get to the heart of a picture book text?  I think the automatic reaction is to think a picture book must be in rhyme.  When you read some of Julia Donaldson's wonderful rhyming stories they look so simple and work so well that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they are easy to write.

It could not be further from the truth.

So what is the problem with rhyme?  (Aside from publishers often telling writers that they are not keen on rhyme because it can be harder to sell co-editions, sometimes citing the problems with translation as the reason.)

But often the problem is that the writer becomes so captivated with the idea of making every line or alternate line rhyme that they force the story out of shape, using words that would never otherwise be in the text, simply because they fit the rhyme.

That means they are probably starting in the wrong place.
It is almost like trying to ice a cake before you have baked the sponge mixture.

First you need to think about the story. That is the heart of a picture book.  Some writers like to know the ending first, so that it is as strong as the beginning.  If the story comes full circle bringing the answer to the problem posed at the beginning, perhaps with an unexpected twist, so much the better.

Ask yourself, what is the story about?  A picture book is not just a poem or a lot of rhyming words, there has to be some reason to tell the story in the first place.
The heart of almost any book is the characters and what happens to them. Why do we care about them? What is the problem they must solve, what exciting journey are they embarking on?

There have been several posts here on Picturebook Den discussing ways to start writing a picture book. Such as this post by Lynne Garner, talking about pace in a picture book and thinking about the story working over the length of the book.

It is a good way to start.
It made me smile when I heard Julia Donaldson yesterday morning on TV talking about starting a book and thinking about it being approx 12 double page spreads.

Once you have your story idea and have thought about the characters you might have already started writing the story (I am not much of a planner when I am writing a novel but I find picture books work better with this kind of framework in mind).
The words you use in a picture book will probably need to be refined and changed, moved about, used in a different way.  It is quite amazing ow many ways you can say the same thing.

A previous post by Jonathan Allen  looks at titles for picture books and shows how the words or expressions can make something either stand out or sound really boring.
I think that each line in a picture book should be examined to make sure it works well, that it keeps the story going, sounds like fun, and is the best use of words in that particular place.

Finding the right word is about making the text easy to read, with words that don't trip up the person reading it out loud, about having rhythm and making the story exciting, and engaging both child and parent.

After all these considerations you might decide that it will work better with some kind of rhyme, perhaps now and then, but only do this if it falls naturally and fits with all the other considerations above.  The rhyme is the least important part, many picture books work better without any rhyme at all, and it should only be used if it absolutely works with the story, fits in with the rhythm and without using archaic or odd language to make the rhyme work.

I've just come back from tutoring a week long residential course for the Arvon Foundation in lovely Moniack Mhor, near Inverness in Scotland, with co-tutor the author and illustrator Teresa Flavin. We discussed different aspects of writing for Children with the 16 enthusiastic and hardworking writers on the course.

Talking about writing picture books was only a small part of the week although it could merit an entire week by itself!  It is a complex and diverse subject as all the posts on this blog show.

So if you are thinking about starting to write a picture book make sure you get to the heart of the story.

Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books for all ages, from picture books to YA novels, and writing handbook Writing For ChildrenWebsite   www.lindastrachan.comBlog BOOKWORDS


madwippitt said...

Great post! Writing these books is an amazing skill - fewer words doesn't mean easy: if anything each has to be more carefully chosen and polished, as you point out.

Penny Dolan said...

Well explained - and one of the things I've been told is to think about what could be called the opportunity for illustration. Is there some interesting new aspect to each spread, even while the story may keep the same setting/s and main characters, ie a development of some kind, not more of the exactly the same sequence.

Linda Strachan said...

Exactly, Penny. Each page has to move the story on and give the illustrator an opportunity to create something new and exciting in the illustrations. It would be boring if you turned the page and there was almost a copy of the page before.
But there is also the opportunity for some of the story to appear only in the illustrations so that the children, who are looking so closely at the pictures, will pick up on something that might be completely the opposite to what is being said in the text. They will understand it and love that they are one step ahead of the characters in the story.

Abie Longstaff said...

Lovely post. The real art in picture books is getting the message across in such few words. People are often surprised how long it can take to write just 800 words but, because space is so limited, crafting and re-crafting the text can take ages! Your point about reading the text aloud is so important - it's the best way to make sure the story flows.

Anonymous said...

What a very thoughtful post. I think another aspect to consider, and this fits in with finding the story's heart, is how does the main character grow or change as a result of the events in the story. I also feel compelled to add that rhyming can really detract from a story, in my opinion, unless it's done very well. That being said, I LOVE picture books that rhyme (well) and that's what I write primarily, though not exclusively. I think I'll take a look at my current WIP's to see if I can detect that much needed heart beat.

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Abie
Yes, reading aloud is so important and it works for longer pieces of writing, too

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Madwippitt, interesting how if something looks easy it is often disguising quite how much work has gone into making it look that way!

Linda Strachan said...

Hi Laura, yes, that is exactly what I meant, rhyme if not done incredibly well can ruin a good picture book, and you are right if it great to find the main character growing from the experiences in a story and coming out in the end in some way altered by them, even if it is a very subtle change.

Moira Butterfield said...

Great post, Linda. I think I will print this one out and hand it to everyone who comes to me with a picture book idea - It happens amazingly often because everybody thinks it's so easy, and that rhyme will solve everything.

Jon Burgess Design said...

I agree, rhyme is hard, like a lot of things that look effortless. It still amazes me how often people think that 'simple' is easy. Maybe it's them that are simple ;-)
I think at least a rough thumbnail outline of the 12 spreads is essential, at quite an early stage in the writing, to assess the dynamics of the story. Then you can do the polishing. But then I am an illustrator who writes, so I think that way as a matter of course.

Simon Beck said...

Very interesting.

I am a self-published author and illustrator. So far I have written eight books, illustrated by myself, and illustrated four other books based on existing texts.

My first book, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Shark!" was in verse, and practically wrote (and illustrated) itself. No unnatural rhymes, other than "iguanas/pyjamas" and (borrowed from Ogden Nash) "toucan/you can". And every verse scanned perfectly.

The next book, "Armadillo" was also in rhyme, based on the tune and rhyming scheme of the song "Clementine". In this case, there was one verse which I felt was slightly awkward, but I left it as I couldn't phrase it naturally without the use of the words "he" or "she", which I specifically wanted to avoid:

"Armadillo, armadillo
On a giant ship will sail/
Armadillo, armadillo
Greets a dolphin and a whale"

Nobody has taken me to task on this small matter, but all my subsequent writing has been in prose, while I have since illustrated two traditional rhymes ("The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "The House that Jack Built"), Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat", which is out of copyright, and Leiber and Stoller's song lyric "Yakety Yak", for which I obtained permission from the song's publisher.