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Tuesday 17 March 2009


Writers of grown-up books, stay with me: picture books have a lot to teach the adult novelist. They are, when done well, a perfect illustration of structure, pace, voice, word choice and engagement with the reader.

Besides, poor old Bev J has been patiently looking at this blog EVERY day, waiting for me to honour my rash promise to say something about picture books.

And another besides, last night I was at the launch of a new picture book by the wonderful Catherine Rayner, "Sylvia and Bird", and it got me thinking. A couple of glasses of fizz later (well, ok, maybe two and a half but Malcolm was very persuasive and Vanessa had got the sparkly stuff in just for me so I felt obliged) and I was thinking with the extra perception that only comes from sparkly booze.

You should have been there. You'd have seen a room full of adults utterly engaged by a story. We were right back at kindergarten. Honestly, we were asking to sit cross-legged on the floor and I'm sure I saw several people suck their thumbs. Dewy-eyed we all were and if someone had come along with that Valrhona chocolate with the little gold bits that Jane Smith keeps telling me about, we'd have hissed at them to shut up and go away with their boring brown product.

You see, a good picture book has everything that any reader or listener needs:
shape, structure, voice, pace, character, setting, and the reader's desperation to know what's going to happen. And isn't that the point about novels? That the reader must want to know what's going to happen? Must in fact be relentlessly driven on by that urge. Otherwise, why would a sensible person sit around listening to a made-up story?

That's why, in my humble etc, a picture book has such a lot to teach us all.

Here are a few other things to know about picture books.
  • writing a picture book is way way WAY harder than it looks. Why do you think I've never tried? Oh, apart for some Thomas the Tank Engine books, but that was so painfully difficult that I never plan to do it again. Unless I'm tortured and/or paid a lot of money. Which, by the way, a) I was (paid, not tortured, though there was a bit of that) and b) you almost certainly won't be for an original picture book (paid or tortured).
  • do not - oh please please do not EVER - consider writing a picture book because you "want to teach young children" anything - eg "how to share things", as a highly unlikely-ever-to-be-successful aspiring writer said to me recently, shortly before I removed myself from such a pointless conversation. Why? Because there is only one reason to write a picture book:
The Only Reason To Write A Picture Book:

You have a lovely story you want to tell.

Nitty gritty bits:
  • a picture book works to a format of a fixed number of pages - usually 24 or 32. Go and buy / borrow some to see how this works. Once you've decided your format (depending on age - as in age of reader not your own age ... - and bearing in mind that shorter is easier to sell, as it's cheaper), work your story around it, remembering that the number of pages includes the "prelims" (the beginning couple of pages where the title and other info comes).
  • note that the first page and the last page are single pages, with everything in between being called "double spreads". Keep this in mind as you plan how your story will divide over the pages.
  • note how few sentences appear on each page. That's one of the reasons it's so hard - it's incredibly difficult to tell an engaging story in a few words. Even if you start with such a fascinating and engagingly likely character as Thomas the Tank Engine ...
  • a pic book story must have a shape, just like any other story. So you might start gently, build up, have a setback, build up again, build up more, reach an exciting outcome, and settle down into a feeling of satisfaction. It is a rounded whole and creates an expectation of resolution followed by a small flutter of worry about resolution before the resolution arrives.
  • it must have a rhythm and a flow - this story will have to be read by an adult again and again and again. So, read it. Again and again and again.
  • unfortunately, you need to avoid or at least be cautious about rhyme, unless you are someone fabulously successful like Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson - someone else whose launch I've been to and where I've seen grown adults dribbling. Actually, more than that, we acted it out the story for her, with sounds and silly faces and very embarrassing things and we LOVED it. It was fizzy wine again, I admit, but even so.
  • (btw, the boring reason for avoiding rhyme is that it can't translate easily into foreign languages and publishers usually need to be able to do this.)
Extra nitty gritty bit: Jane Smith just directed me (see comments below) to a REALLY technical and good Editorial Anonymous lesson about pic books here. Way too technical for me but if I was actually writing a pic book ....

What about the pictures?
  • If you are a trained illustrator who has written a story, offer yourself as an illustrator who has written a story. In other words, send text and pics.
  • If you are a writer who happens to be pretty good at drawing, just offer the story - you are welcome to include sketches, just to give an idea, but you are highly unlikely to be taken on as the illustrator. The publisher will find an illustrator - this is not your job and you'll be wasting your time.
  • If you are a writer who can't draw for toffee, don't. Just write the story. The publisher will find the artist.
About the submission:
  • send the whole thing, not just a sample
  • but if you are the illustrator, there'd be nothing wrong with only sending some of the finished artwork (but with complete text), with perhaps some sketches for the rest, as long as your style and consistency are absolutely obvious alongside your incredible talent
  • if sending just text, make sure you indicate how the text will be split between pages
  • you won't usually need a synopsis, as your covering letter should give all that's necessary. But a short (obviously!) synopsis on a separate sheet would not go amiss to show you've understood about structure etc
  • if you are an illustrator, you could send a sample of your work as well as anything you send for this project - you could be taken on as an illustrator for someone else's story
  • whatever, you must show a long-term commitment. Simply having written one pic book story on a whim won't be enough. Mention some other ideas you've had, say whether you've written anything else, and give some idea (eg in a CV / resumé) that you have a relevant background and a future. Too many people think that a pic book is easy and a way to get a foot in the door - it's neither of those things and a publisher or agent needs to know that you are worth investing time and money in. One pic book on its own is harder to sell than a potential pic book star author.
Now, if any of you have any technical questions about submitting artwork, please don't ask me, as I haven't a clue. I'm no artist and have absolutely no technical knowledge of that side of things. And I'd be delighted if any experienced pic book writers would add comments to fill in any gaps or add any insights. As I said, I haven't written any pic books and anything I know comes from being interested in all forms of writing and from listening to other people's experiences, including many Society of Authors members.

All I know, and what I really want to emphasise, is that writing a picture book is a real art in itself and that writers for older readers of all ages should read, analyse, inwardly digest and ultimately respect and learn from the best picture books around. And here are three of my favs to get you started.

Think of an Eel, by Karen Wallace - the most magical writing. Perfection.

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson - deservedly a classic

Meanwhile, I'm going back to Vanessa's shop to buy a copy of Sylvia and Bird, because I ... er ... forgot last night. Well, I was having too much fun listening to a story.