Monday, April 21, 2014

10 Tips on writing and submitting a picture book...

I have a new picture book coming out in a few months. Last week I received my advance copies. The Song of Kauri, published by Scholastic NZ,  illustrated by Dominique Ford and designed by Vida and Luke Kelly, will be hitting the bookshops June/July, I believe, in hardback and a Maori translation in softback. I love this book and hope you will love it too.

It is the story of a Kauri tree that begins to grow when New Zealand itself is a new land.It is a myth, a fairytale, a history, an environmental story and a hymn to nature. It is a story of beginnings, old and new.

I have another two picture books to be published over the next 18 months or so and have had five previously published over the last 8 years with Scholastic and Duck Creek Press. So I thought I might say a few words about writing picture books that might be helpful if you are interested in tackling this form of children's literature yourself. I've talked about this before but I think people are still keen to write them so I think the advice bears repeating.

1. Don't assume that picture books are an easy way in to the book writing business. They are not 'easy' to write. Sometimes they can be quick to write but this is not the same thing as easy. Easy and quick are two different words with two different meanings.

2. I know of picture book writers who do not read picture books and people who read lots of picture books who cannot write them. However, in general these two groups do overlap to a large extent. Which is to say, reading widely in the form will help you write them. You have to know what they are, to correctly produce your own.

3. It is not necessary to write rhyme to have a picture book published. Some of my favourite picture books are not rhyming (Where the Wild Things Are, Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton Trent, Tulevai and the Sea, My First Car was Red, Mrs Mo's Monster are some great examples). This does not mean you should NOT write in rhyme but publisher's in-boxes are full of badly rhyming picture book submissions. People write crazy stories that make no sense just so the rhyme will work. Or they use rhymes that have been used a thousand times before (cat/hat/sat/mat -  do/too/you - fun/sun/run) that are rhyme cliches.  I suggest you focus on the rhythm of your story. If nothing else, good rhythm will make your story more pleasurable to read.
If you are committed to rhyming, before you submit, read your story out loud to yourself to see where the rhyme is strained. Then have someone unfamiliar with the text read it to you to test it also. When you have been working on a story for a long time it is easy to remember where to pause or stretch a syllable out to make a rhyme work. But new readers (including potential buyers) won't have this level of familiarity. You have to make the rhyme work for that first reading by unfamiliar eyes.

4. You do not have to find an illustrator. Publishers are very practiced and skilled at doing this. They do it all the time. It is part of their job. They generally try to do their best at it because they are in the business of selling books and want to make a good product that people will want to buy. And they know way more illustrators than you do.

5. The idea is the thing. Is it appealing? To both children and adults? Is it relevant to children? Is it appropriate for their age and stage? Is it fresh? People are writing picture books all around the world, all of the time, so it is a major challenge to come up with something new. While writing a picture book might be quick, the getting of the great idea can be very slow. Sometimes I have had years between good picture book ideas. That is why I also write novels - to fill in the time between great picture book ideas (okay that last statement is only partly true :) ) Don't force it. Be patient and do things (lots of different interesting things) that put you in touch with ideas.

6. Picture books are usually around 400 to 700 words. They can be up to 1000 words but that is at the very long end for a picture book story and picture book manuscripts that length are less likely to get published. The illustrations will show some of the detail of your story that will allow you to pare away some of the words. So while 400-700 words can be 'quick' to write, they are not 'easy' because you've had to pick the right ones that tell your story in an interesting, fresh and appropriate way and then figure out which ones your story can do without without losing the quality of the story. Feeling like Michelangelo yet?

7.  Pick your words carefully. You can have a fabulous idea that drowns in boring prose, or zingy prose that doesn't actually say an awful lot. Giving some consideration to rhythm will help here. Be playful with words but not at the expense of meaning. Don't forget your target age group - too many complex words might turn them off. But a few advanced ones will challenge them and add to their vocabulary. A good rule of thumb is you can include a difficult word if the meaning of the sentence does not rely on it.

8. Don't be juvenile. Children think about big issues just as adults do. Fear, loneliness, fitting in, friendship, death, loss. They want help to make sense of their world and assist them in navigating the tricky waters of life. Giving them some meaningful tools for self management in amongst a fun story is the best gift you can give them. On the other hand, DON'T preach. No one wants to be lectured.

9. I have never laid my manuscript out like a picture book when I've submitted it. And I have had 8 picture book manuscripts accepted for publication. I separate the text into paragraphs to represent how I think it might  work over the pages but ultimately the publisher has the final say on how the text appears. I figure the less I suggest how things should be the more freedom the publisher has to see how best it might work. I respect their experience with these things. However I have learnt a lot about pagination over the years and I am sure this has been absorbed into the way I write. If you are new at picture book writing, this is where reading plenty of picture books will help you.

10. I rarely provide artists notes to advise on what might appear in the pictures. Even when the story relies on something that I have not written into the text. If I can see what is missing in the text (that should be shown in the illustrations) I trust that an experienced publisher will see it too. If I have done my job and written the story well than I figure a publisher will read and see it how I intended it. It is worth noting here that some publishers actively dislike artist's notes and do not look at them anyway.

So folks - there you have it - my advice on writing and submitting picture books. If you think I've missed anything out, feel free to ask about it in the comments below, and if I know the answer or have some thoughts on it I will include it in this post. Happy writing!


Jane Bloomfield said...

Wow Congratulations on all your soon to be released picture books! You have kept that very quiet. 8!!!!!!!! What a bumper crop. I was also interested to read that you don't paginate your pbs.

Melinda Szymanik said...

ah Jane, not at all - I have already shamelessly broadcast about at least one of these new books a while back but it's unlikely to be out till next year and the other one has been sitting with the publisher so long that at times i forget about it.

I only paginate in terms of separate paragraphs but otherwise no. I don't know if that makes publishers happy, sad or indifferent but it has certainly never been an issue in the way of getting work accepted.