Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Extra Tips On Writing Picture Books, by Paeony Lewis

At the Picture Book Den there’s a titanosaurus-sized mass of tips on how to write children’s picture books. So is there any advice left? Maybe! I’ve decided to pass on four slightly different, personal tips.

Titanosaurus (BBC)

Tip 1
Join an evening class on writing poetry. Yes, you did read that correctly! I spent a year attending poetry classes with a friend and after a few months we discovered that the quality of ALL our writing had improved. Writing poetry (not rhyme) for adults made us think harder about word choices. Revision is constant and clichés are shunned. It’s the attention to EVERY word that has left the strongest impression.

So if you join a course on writing poetry and have a tutor that won’t accept lazy writing, I suspect your picture-book writing will stealthily improve. However, I won't guarantee how long the influence will last - I think I need to return to writing poetry!

Tip 2
Looking at published picture books can be daunting to a new writer. Perhaps you wonder if you’ll ever be able to match the awesomeness of your favourites. If this is a problem and you lack confidence, then type out the text of a picture book (one that is understandable from the text alone). This makes the process of writing a picture book feel more manageable and may help with the analysis of the story.

Tip 3
As many of you know, picture book writers often divide their text into twelve spreads (a spread is a double page). Or sometimes writers follow the example of illustrators and ‘storyboard’ using twelve boxes to represent the twelve spreads. However, I’ve found that taking this a step further with a simple, physical mini book can help new writers think harder about the potential illustrations and story structure. Of course, the final illustrations may be completely different and if you don’t illustrate then they’ll be out of your control, but at this stage you’re just planning and moulding the story.

All you need to do is take a pile of 8 sheets of A4 paper and fold them in half. That’s it! You have a cover and book! Now sketch out your story and don’t worry that the drawings look pathetic – nobody else will see your stick figures. The aim is to help you visualise the story and page turns and see what might appear on every page. There’s no need to write the text – just use thick lines to represent the sentences. Perhaps you’ll discover there is too much text and the illustrations are too samey.

Tip 4
With character-led stories your characters must be REAL to you, because if they’re not then how can you expect your reader to believe in them? The characters aren’t just nebulous talking bears, bunnies, pigeons, dinosaurs or small children. They’re individuals with specific character traits and emotions. It can be tricky with picture books as you have so few words, but take a look at picture books with main characters that have birthed several in a series and study what makes them come alive on the page. What makes that character appealing and ‘strong’ enough for people to want to read more?

Happy writing, everyone, and do whatever works for you!
Paeony Lewis


Moira Butterfield said...

Such great tips, Paeony. I always sketch out my work, even though it may never be seen or used later on. I've been doing a story with a sound button in it this week, and had to make sure I gave plenty of opportunity on every spread to use the sound button - and by sketching it I discovered how to do it, if that makes sense. It gave my brain the pathway it needed to find.

Jane Clarke said...

Humongously good tips, especially the poetry one.

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

Paeony these are all fantastic tips. I would never have thought of going to a poetry class, or simply copying out a text to see how it works. Thank you.

Paeony Lewis said...

Wonder what the sound will be, Moria? I remember my children continually pressing a 'Gary Grasshopper' button to hear the chirps in a story!
I used to presume just dividing into spreads would be enough, but the act of turning a page is even more powerful.

Pippa Goodhart said...

For some reason I read that as Gassy Grasshopper, Paeony, so was imagining QUITE the wrong noise! Four brilliant ideas, thanks.

Paeony Lewis said...

I can't even begin to imagine the noise a gassy grasshopper would make!!

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Jane. The poetry really was surprising.

Paeony Lewis said...

Many thanks, Anita. I get new students to type out texts for their first week's homework. It helps to focus on the story and removing the wonderful illustration seems to make the idea of writing a text less daunting. I also get them to swap texts and imagine what the illustrations might be for books they don't know.

Renee LaTulippe said...

As a children's poet and author, I am thrilled to see your first tip! This is something I've been saying for a long time, which is why I developed an online course for children's writers called The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry.

As you mention, nothing will help hone your diction and pacing like studying poetry. Brava!

Paeony Lewis said...

Enjoyed peeking around your poetry website, Renee.