Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul
Have you ever searched for a book that you know is on your bookshelf but now that you are looking for it specifically, it’s nowhere to be found? After several minutes of frustration, voilà! Another book jumps out at you and it is just what you needed to read! I am quite convinced that books “allow” themselves to be found. That’s what happened to me at the local bookstore, when several books called out to me, but Ann Whitford Paul’s book, Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication shouted “Pick me!” It turns out that this book is exactly what I needed to read at this moment in my writing life. Within its pages I found pearls of wisdom as well as encouragement and inspiration for my writing. I also found useful exercises that I actually felt like doing and could complete. The book is also filled with techniques, tips and tools that are invaluable to the picture book writing process. Best of all, the book contains a logical, structured approach that is empowering because it not only educates but gives permission to explore, read, write and have fun. I later found out that this also happens to be the required text for a writing class I’ll be taking later this year.
I became a fan of the book immediately, finding comfort in the sincerity of the Prologue, which opens with this quote by Katherine Patterson: I love revisions. Where else in life can spilled milk be transformed into ice cream? Here, Ann Whitford Paul admits that, early in her career, she made all of the mistakes that editors often talk about at conferences, from cutesy names and well-behaved children, to contrived plots and dull language and many months of waiting for offer letters that never came. She wrote this book to help writers understand these lessons and save them a lot of time and torment. The goals of this book are to turn you into your best critic, gain skills to improve your writing, consider your work dispassionately and understand the direction that your revisions must take to make it a salable story. Moreover, the book needs your written story for the exercises and for you to revise. It is a kick in the pants to write. It is the kind of book that will not only sit on my bookshelf for many years, it will be a constant companion, already raggedy with use.
The book is beautifully and logically organized. Each chapter begins with a quote and ends with a Summary, WHAT’S NEXT? And BEFORE YOU GO ON, which should not be ignored. On every page, Ann Whitford Paul takes your hand and sits with you as you navigate the capricious and lonely waters toward publication. Every chapter includes dozens of pearls of writing wisdom. Too many to list, here are some of my favorites:
- Completing your story is the beginning of the writing process, not the end.
- The time-consuming part of writing is turning a manuscript into a publishable work.
- Some things in every first draft are worth saving.
- The key to becoming a better writer is to learn to be your own best critic.
- Be open to new ideas. Don’t be a bud, closed and tight. Be a blossom open to the sun, the wind, the rain, and any idea that comes your way.
The book is divided into six sections:
1- Before You Write Your Story: how to become a picture book scholar
There are two picture book audiences: children and the adults who read to them. Several key components make a picture book engaging and enduring. This chapter discusses the structure of picture books along with some fundamentals of child psychology. Children are complicated. They live in the present, and have limited experiences, very short attention spans and strong emotions. They are self-centered yet long to be independent and they understand a great deal more than we give them credit for. From an adult’s perspective, picture books need not be written in babyish language, should be easy to read - over and over again.
2- Early Story Decisions: how to build your “story house” and the many different ways to tell your story and create compelling characters
What is your story question? What is its answer? Your story needs multiple levels and dimensions. Children (and adults) enjoy a story that has depth. This section also explores the use of different points of view (POV) in storytelling as well as voice and how changing POV and voice affects a story. Picture books tend to be told in the third person POV, or narrative voice. Changing the tense, time period and location of your story also have repercussions. Finally, your story must have characters that are compelling. They should not be perfect, but they do need to be characters we care about, likeable and believable. They need to solve their own problems and be unique, memorable and consistent. According to Ann Whitford Paul, there are five things every writer must know about a character and provides a test for consistency. “You can never know enough about your characters.” - W. Somerset Maugham
3-Structure of Your Story: plunging into your story, first sentences, three acts, keeping the story together and getting the story to a successful conclusion
A strong opening consists of six Ws: Who? What? When? Where? What is the tone? WOW! It also needs a strong first line. Using time, mood, stetting, opinion, provocative statement, middle of the action, conflict and scrapbook, first lines can be tested for different effects. Eleven techniques are discussed that can help hold your story together. Some of these include A Journey, Comparison, Repetitive Phrase, Days of the Week, Story within a Story, and Question and Answer. Check your manuscript to see which techniques are used and then try adding one or two and see how this changes or improves your story. Finally, check your story to make sure it has a strong ending. A book should end with the unexpected expected. - Jane Yolen
- The ending should not be predictable
- The main character solves the problem
- The main character changes in some way
- No lucky coincidences influence the outcome
- The ending comes at the end of the book
- The ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it should give hope
4- Language of Your Story: the two Ss of good writing, rhyme, the music of prose and word count
Scenes and Show, don’t tell are the two Ss of strong writing. There are many reasons for writing in scenes. They are physical and can be observed. They deliver conflict and tension. They are used to advance the plot or reveal something new about the character. Scenes are not easy to write and every scene has a unique, internal rhythm. The purpose of a scene is to throw the reader and listener into the action, which means you, the author, have to have been in there. The section includes examples of Show, don’t tell and offers exercises to turn telling sentences into showing sentences. Rhyme, rhythm and meter are also discussed in depth. The music of sounds and prose are covered, along with the sounds of letters and the impact they have on mood and action. Word choice is important because certain sounds evoke different emotions, changing a story from light and soft to dark and ominous. Poetic tools, such as alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are also important and can impact the mood of your story. Other tools, such as personification, metaphor and simile can add depth and richness to the writing. Finally, the all-important word count is discussed, along with how to understand the illustrator’s job, respecting a child’s intelligence and having an understanding of and sympathy for your audience. The book also provides a list of picture books along with word count, as well as helpful hints on reducing word count, and text that the author had “expanded and made even worse for the purpose of this (editing) exercise.”
5- Tying Together Loose Story Ends: creating a great title and making dummy books
This section goes over the importance of having an attention-grabbing title. Many a book is chosen by a reader because the title seems promising. – Barbara Seuling
Try to include at least one of the following: brief, catchy, does not give away the ending, ia easy for a child to say, hints at the topic, or is unique. This section also included a chapter on creating a dummy and color testing it to see how the story works.
6- After Your Story Is Done: sharing your story, researching the Market, getting ideas and selling your manuscript
Ann Whitford Paul believes in writing groups. They complete the trinity of the writer, the words and the reader. Her book offers many tips on organizing a writing group- from finding members, assessing personal and professional qualifications, determining size, meeting times and place. She also provides a framework for meetings; sharing news and the critiquing process. I enjoyed the section on what to expect when your manuscript is being critiqued and how to critique of others’ work and identifying important issues and fine tuning. Repeat the process of sharing and revising until you all think it is the best story it can be. The next step is finding the right publisher, making sense of submission policies, cover letters and manuscript formats. The book also touches on how to find an agent and how to deal gracefully with rejections. Also included are ten commandments for submitting picture book manuscripts. Waiting for the letter is one of the most agonizing and painful times. If unchecked, this period of time can send a writer into a tail spin of re-working a manuscript or taking an extended vacation from writing. The best thing to do is start another project as quickly as possible. Ann Whitford Paul offers sincere advice about where to get ideas and to remember that every person has something of value to share. The chapter ends with numerous writing prompts designed to take us back to our childhood and dig up memories, or take a good look at the life we have created for ourselves, our passions and interests, and our hopes and dreams for our stories. On a final, positive note, the book takes us through contracts, revisions, illustrators and publication.
And no matter what books you read or what classes you take, you control your own destiny. You decide whether to write or not, submit or not. It is up to you. You have to do the work.