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If It Walks Like a Bunny and Talks Like a Bunny...
by Kathryn Lay

It Still Might Not Be A Picture Book

You have a great idea for a kid’s story and, “Wallah!” It’s a picture book manuscript.

Or is it?

Picture books are short and for the very young and mostly pictures, so they must be easy to write. Right?

Nope. They are really more difficult than most type of writing. Kids love picture books. They are the first books a child holds, a time to be read to by their parents, siblings, or caregivers.

Because of this and the apparent simplicity of them, many children’s writers navigate toward picture books as their first foray into writing for children. They are shorter in length. The concepts are simpler than a long, plotted out novel. They are fun to do in schools and bookstores and libraries.

But writing picture books is challenging, both in the actual writing and the selling. It costs publishers tens of thousands to produce a picture book. They are paying a writer and an illustrator, plus the cost of putting together an illustrated book.

Is it really a short story instead?

There is a big difference between a children’s short story and a picture book. Both are shorter than a novel and both are for children, but sometimes the story isn’t right for a picture book and may truly be a magazine story. A picture book is about story AND pictures. A short story may all be in one or very few settings. It may be longer.

If you think you are writing a picture book, ask yourself this question. Does it have enough different picture possibilities?

A picture book is done in 16 or 32 pages. Board books are 8-16. Your story must have 16-32 different picture possibilities. There may be some or most of the pictures in the same setting, but the picture must change somehow.

Should I get my best friend to illustrate it?

Are you a professional illustrator? Then don’t worry about who will illustrate your book. Unless you plan on self-publishing, you are a writer and that is how the publisher will judge the manuscript. Once it is accepted by a publisher, they will search for and decide on an illustrator. They might listen to your suggestions, but they may have someone specific in mind once they read the manuscript. Sending a picture book manuscript that is written well along with a friend who “can draw” but isn’t professional in their illustrating will only hurt your chances to make a sale.

Does it really need a plot, can’t it just be sweet?

We’ve all read books that are “cute” and "sweet” but seem to go nowhere in plotting. Many of these books were done in years past. But many writers nowadays have received rejections stating that their book is “too sweet” or “too slight.” Your story doesn’t have to be multi-dimensional or have many levels of plotting, but many publishers prefer a story line, even in rhyming books. Go to the bookstore or library and look at the books published in the past year or two, the ones out now, and read them. Unless you are looking at baby board books or novelty books, most have some sort of a plot going on.

I’ve read lots of long picture books from many years ago, so can mine be 2500 words long?

With the shorter attention spans and cost of printing, picture books have gotten shorter in text. Generally, 1000 words or less is a good guideline.

What does it mean to “dummy” a book. I’m not an illustrator?

To dummy a book is for your benefit as a writer. This is where you find out if your story has enough picture possibilities and more. Create a book dummy by folding 16 pages into 32. Begin your book on page 3-4 (front matter counts for the beginning – the info about the book’s publishing, dedications, title page). Type out your story and cut it up into where you think the new pictures/pages would be and tape it onto your dummy. Do you have too much text or not enough at some points? Are there sections that don’t “show” enough for the illustrator to work with? Do you only see about 20 single pictures? You can have some double-page spreads, but think about more picture possibilities. This dummy will not be sent to the editor, it is merely a guideline for you to use to see if you actually have a picture book.

Should I tell the publisher what kind of illustration I want on each page?

Occasionally a specific book or part of a book may call for a writer to give some type of direction on illustrations, but most often the editor prefers that the illustrator does their own interpretation of the text. While this can be frightening for the writer, the pictures and cover are what will draw in young readers. An illustrator wants the book to sell well as much as you do and generally will do their best to create a book you both will be proud of.

Writing a picture book takes a lot of research and studying of picture books that have worked, and coming up with new ideas that will tantalize both parents and children. Dashing off a quick story and sending it to the first publisher on a list without doing some research and hard work is likely to make your dream of becoming a picture book writer never rise to the top of the slush, but if you truly believe in your story, give it the time and attention it deserves and someday you may find yourself sitting in a school, library, or bookstore surrounded by children as you read aloud.

© Copyright 2007, Kathryn Lay

Kathryn Lay is the author of 26 books for children, over 2000 articles, essays and stories for children and adults and the book from AWOC.COM Publishing, The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer. Check out her website at www.kathrynlay.com and email through rlay15@aol.com

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