Wednesday 22 May 2024

The One-Hour Picture Book -Be More Quantity by Juliet Clare Bell

There’s an anecdotal story told about surrealist photographer Jerry Uelsmann and how he tried to motivate his Beginning Photography students at the University of Florida:

(c) Giuliano De Portu

He gave half the class a quantity assignment, where they were to take photos and their grade would be based solely on quantity: 100 photos at the end of the semester would get an A; 90 would get a B, and so on. And he gave the other half a quality assignment. They only had to submit one photo and it would be graded according to its quality. At the end of the semester, Uelsmann found that the best quality photos were actually from the quantity half, where the students had experimented and learned along the way through the practice of actually taking multiple photographs.

This has been described in Atomic Habits by James Clear, and less accurately in Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

(by their own admission) but however accurate, I know that if I’d been in the quality group, I’d have taken that one photograph so seriously and the thought of it not being amazing would have weighed so heavily on my mind that it would have massively stifled my creativity. My take home message from the story is clear:

·         * Stop feeling pressured about an individual project you’re working on

·         * Don’t think of yourself being a picture book author as being someone who produces one book every so often (or not so often) after months of hard graft

·         * Don’t take yourself too seriously

·         * Sit down and get on with it

·         * Practise the form again and again and again

·         * Don’t worry if lots of your manuscripts are terrible and wholly unworthy of being sent to publishers/your agent

·         * That’s kind of the point.

·         * Just do it.

·         * And then just do it again.

·         * And then just do it some more…

·         * so you’re so used to the practise of sitting down and turning up to write that you’re going to come up with far more really good manuscripts/germs of an idea than you would by treating the production of ideas as wholly organic and the turning of the idea into a book as super complex

·         If you treat each idea like it needs to be executed perfectly from the start then you’re not going to get nearly as far as you would -even with the same idea- as if you’re freer and prepared to play and experiment rather than treat it with kid gloves

·         And there will be some gems, or at least gems of an idea, that you would never have if you were treating each idea as if it were ethereal and fragile.


I said the take home message for me was clear -not concise. And that’s part of the issue. If I don’t set constraints, then I over-write, over-think and procrastinate wildly. I make it way more complicated than it needs to be. In fact, it can be concise:

·         Be more quantity.


A few years ago, a small group of us picture book writers and illustrators, high on the excitement of a weekend spent together at a picture book retreat

                           SCBWI British Isles Picture Book Retreat 2023 (c) Tita Berredo
               (wrong year for the story but everyone from the 'Two a Month' group is in the picture)

decided that we should try and mimic Jerry Uelsmann’s practice. And for a while, we committed to focusing on quantity over quality in picture book creation (as an exercise) and agreed to show up once a month online with two completed picture book drafts, however rough (the point wasn’t to get critique on the manuscripts but to keep each other accountable for creating more, and really regularly). Whilst it lasted, it was really helpful and we were all more productive -and without actively trying to come up with even more ideas, I was coming up with way more ideas than the two drafts a month. But as is so often the case, life got in the way and we were all busy with other commitments and deadlines and we stopped.

It was a good attempt at channelling Jerry Uelsmann, and the constraint of writing two a month and knowing that we were celebrating consistent quantity over quality was helpful, but perhaps the constraints weren’t quite enough for me and I needed to constrain my parameters even more…


I’ve always loved the constraints when writing a picture book (every word matters, twelve to fourteen spreads, making use of the form with page turns and reveals etc.). Constraints can be extremely helpful, especially for those of us who are prone to distraction (you’ve caught me mid-sentence, scratching away at my tab key as I try and type, but seriously, how did it get that grubby…?)

I’ve recently written a series of early readers for a publisher and the construction of the books is full of constraints -very low word count, restricted word choice, reduced spreads, specific characters, etc.. And because it’s for a series of educational books, the deadlines are close together, there’s a quick turnaround between handing the first draft in, getting feedback and editing before handing over the final draft, and it’s way harder to procrastinate… Research for the level and the individual books takes a lot of time but by the end of the series of books, I’d got into a half-decent habit of quickly mapping out and writing the actual first draft.

When we were talking at our local SCBWI at the weekend

                                       Our local SCBWI Central West group this weekend

another picture book creator talked about needing to stop taking her work so seriously and I mentioned the quantity vs quality story. I also said how we’d tried a two-a-month group, how we’d previously done speed-dating with picture book ideas generated in Storystorm month (if you want to know how, here’s a guest blogpost I wrote for Storystorm 2019, we remembered how we’d done a ‘picture book in a day’ session a year earlier in one of our local meet-ups and I mentioned how I’d been mapping out and writing my first draft  stories for the early readers really quickly. I said it was amazing what you could actually do in a hour if you really focused…

So she called me on it. Why didn’t we write a picture book there and then in an hour (without any preparation -and for me, at least, any idea of what I’d write about)?

I spent the first ten minutes brainstorming and identifying what I might write about (what issues have been on my mind lately that might resonate with young children) and then drew out twelve spreads and wrote the story.

Did we finish a scrappy first draft in an hour?

    Yes. We both did!

Were we surprised?

    Yes. Extremely!

In fact, by the end of that hour, we’d even both managed a light edit.

Was it our best manuscript to date?

    No. But that’s not the point. We both created a whole (scrappy) manuscript in an hour, a whole story that had not existed just sixty minutes earlier.

Was it helpful that the other person was there, body doubling, to keep up accountable?


Would it be replicable back home, alone?

    It turns out, yes… I tried again yesterday, specifically for this blogpost, and I managed it. It's not as interesting as the first one (which I'll definitely do more editing on and see how it goes) but that doesn't matter at all...



My memory is terrible. As someone who is perimenopausal on top of ADHD and aphantasia (where I can’t visualise, see I need all the help I can get to remind me that I’m a picture book author. I literally forget almost every day -like I literally forget we have a garden for most of the year because we can’t see it from the house as the windows don’t overlook it. And in the way that I actually have a picture of me looking happy in the garden, displayed prominently to remind myself that we have a garden and I love being in it, I need prompts to remember I’m a picture book writer. Making myself write picture book drafts really regularly is a very practical way of helping me remember that I am actually a picture book writer. 

Why not have a go? This could be for you if you

·         Take yourself too seriously

·         Take your writing too seriously (to the point where you stop taking risks because you don’t want to get it wrong)

·         Struggle to start writing

·         Struggle to finish writing

·         Forget that you’re a picture book writer (and want a really regular reminder)

·        Have ADHD and need the dopamine boost of a super-quick deadline

       Just want a fun challenge


I try loads of different strategies all the time to make me more productive and procrastinate less. I’m really keen to get this going and I’ll be doing another tomorrow at our local Society of Authors meet up where we’re writing together for one hour (perfect timing!) After that, I’ve got hundreds of tiny ideas from various Storystorms and in general. I’m going to write each one on a slip of paper, put the slips of paper in a jar and pull one out at random at least three times a week to create at least twelve picture book first scrappy drafts in the coming month. I write for an hour each morning at 6am anyway as it’s my best time of day so I will just be more organised in what I write during those times. I can certainly afford to spend three hours a week working on something new (three somethings new) and out of those twelve there might even be one that’s worth pursuing. And if there isn’t? Has it been a waste of time?

Absolutely not. I’ll be strengthening my picture book muscle, getting better at ignoring my inner critic and absolutely remembering that I am a picture book writer. My new motto:

Be More Quantity.

(The quality will follow.)

Are you up for trying it out? Do you have any tips for non-precious writing? If so, I'd love to hear in the comments. 

Juliet Clare Bell is a children's author of over 35 picture books and early readers.



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