How to Write Your First Picture Book

How to Write Your First Picture BookPhoto by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In the past two years, I’ve edited 18 picture books and advised on a dozen more. I’ve also turned down about 50 manuscripts that weren’t yet ready for an editor’s critical eye. The number one reason I send authors back to the drawing board is that they’ve submitted an idea, not a manuscript.

It’s a hard truth to tell someone who has poure out all their hopes onto a page in raw optimism and inspiration that what they have presented to you isn’t what they think it is. Most of the time, what feels like a perfect first draft to a new writer looks more like a grocery cart to an experienced editor. All the ingredients of a story are in there somewhere, but they haven’t been measured out, combined, or baked: they have great potential to be almost anything and only you know what that will be.

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If a chef hands the basket of ingredients to an assistant, at that stage, even with a recipe, the finished dish will reflect the vision of the assistant, not the chef. In the same way, when you have a spark of an idea and you write it down, it could feel to you like a story, but unless you put in the time to carefully craft it to match your vision, all a reader will see is the ingredients. Anyone who helps you with it at this stage would either be a ghostwriter or co-author, and that’s surely not what you want!

As a writer, myself, I can’t tell you how many stories I have started where, once I write them down in the format of a picture book, they suddenly fall apart and need to be completely reworked. The “reworking” is the essence of the internal work of a writer, and that’s between you and your story. No editor can step in until you’ve written it. There are no shortcuts to writing.

Story checklist

Once you’ve written a first draft and you think you have a sense of the flow of the story… Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is there a beginning, middle and end?
  2. Does your main character want or need something that is driving them forward with a singleminded purpose?
  3. Does your main character need to change in some way to make that one thing happen? Perhaps they need to call on a resolve of strength or courage they never knew they had, or they may have to locate someone or do something in a way that only they have the unique ability to accomplish. Even the shortest picture book has to start somewhere and draw the reader in so they simply have to turn the page so they can find out what happens next.
  4. Is your main character the “agent of change” in the story? In other words, is your main character the catalyst that saves the day or makes things happen or transforms in some way?
  5. How’s your language, pace and flow? Can you read it out loud from beginning to end? Can a friend read it out loud back to you? Can you read it to a child? Do you have to explain anything once they’ve read it?
  6. Is there suspense in your story? At any point, does your reader wonder what will happen next? And for littler readers, can they anticipate what’s coming next with a delicious feeling of suspense?

If you can’t answer “yes” to all these questions, head back to the drawing board again. Take all the time you need — there’s no rush!

Need a primer on kids’ books or just want to learn more before you dive in? Discover this list of essential blogs and newsletters for Kidlit Writers and Illustrators from Teri Daniels on The Writing Cooperative.

The most common mistake new writers make: creating a powerless main character

Many stories have a promising beginning: they present a character who wants or needs something more than anything and they place an obstacle in their way that must be overcome by the end of the story. A perfect place to start!

But then… someone else comes along, usually an adult, who secretly gives that main character what they hoped for. The child gets it. The child is happy. The adults are happy. The dog is happy. The End.

Does this work as a picture book? It sure feels like it should, but it does not. Why? Because your main character didn’t do anything to get the reward. The character may be satisfied, but the reader… not so much.

Now… if the main character works as hard as they can to reach their goal but something is in their way — for example, they get sidelined by other tasks — then you have suspense and an opportunity for your character to grow, change, and roll with what happens — or not — and get transformed and rewarded for their efforts in the end. Your character is suddenly the main character in their story and they’re a hero you can root for!

Here’s my favorite example: In the classic SpongeBob episode Best Day Ever, SpongeBob sets out to have a perfect day doing all the things he loves to do, but he gets sidetracked, stopping to help everyone because it’s in his nature. At the end of the day, he’s happy he got to help his friends but disappointed he never got to do anything on his list. Cue the grand finale, (spoiler alert) where everyone he’s helped along the way has gotten together to throw him the biggest, best surprise party ever. SpongeBob doesn’t get the perfect day he’s imagined, but he gets an even more perfect day that he truly deserved for being such a good friend… simple, elemental storytelling at its best.

Image for postPhoto by Ben White on Unsplash

Make every word count

Once you have your first draft written and your story feels like a bit of a roller coaster — will the baby get the cookie without getting caught? Will they thwart danger? Will the dog eat it before the baby gets a chance to enjoy the fruits of their efforts? —now it’s time to play with your words. In a picture book, you have less than 1000 words to tell a whole story, so you bet that every single word matters a whole lot. Go through your manuscript and examine each word. Agonize over every adjective. Delete all your adverbs ending in “-ly” and show reactions instead of summarizing them.

A note about names

Choose your character’s names and your title wisely to make them as unique as they are memorable and easy to spell. One recent client insisted on naming their picture book characters after standard nouns but played with the spelling. She gave her characters names like Dreem and Happye, and used them in the title. I advised against it but lost the battle. I’m afraid her story will get lost in the un-google-able, un-spellable and un-memorable lost story bin because of its title, and it’s a shame because it’s a beautiful story!

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A note on rhyming

The cardinal rule of rhyming in picture books is only use rhyme if the rhymes really work and maintain your intended meaning. And the only way you can do that is to have other people read it back to you. Good rhythm and rhyme are wonderful tools that move a story along and help kids anticipate the words that come next. Bad rhythm or rhyme can trip up a reader and take readers out of the story as they puzzle through your word choice.

Storytelling, grammar and meaning should never come at the expense of a rhyme. The author mentioned above also wrote her story in rhyme. In one instance, she rhymed “legs” and “page”, explaining that with her accent, “legs” was pronounced “LAYGz”. I explained that even if she was providing an audio recording with every book she sold, that rhyme would fall flat for 90% of her readers.

In general, a rhyme only works in a picture book if you can read it out loud and the reading flows naturally whether or not the words that follow actually rhyme. Picture books are a wonderful way for children to learn language and sentence structure. Messing with the structure of a sentence to keep the rhyme won’t help with language development and may fail to move the needle forward.

If your rhymes don’t really work, keep the story, ditch the ryme, and leave the rhyming to Dr. Se

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