One Writer’s Journey

March 13, 2017

Poetry, Writing in Rhyme and Word Play

Saturday I had the opportunity to attend a top-notch writing workshop put on by KS/MO SCBWI.  The subject was poetry and rhyme and the workshop leader was Peggy Archer.

Writing in rhyme is not natural for me.  Part of it is my subject matter.  Black Lives Matter, Race and Racism and the Zika virus are not exactly topics that are just begging for a rhyming treatment.  Nope.

But I am trying to get back into picture book writing and picture books frequently rhyme in spite of the fact that many editors and agents advise writers not to write in rhyme.  Why?  Because it is so very hard to do well.  While I don’t tend to write in rhyme, I love wordplay and fun language in a picture book.  To that end, I tend to use onomatopoeia (sound words like pitter patter or kaboom) and alliteration (wicked wiley words).  As in poetry, picture book writing requires using each and every word for maximum impact.  Poetry workshops are a great help and Peggy’s was one of the best.

Here are 3 things I learned from Peggy.

  1.  Word lists pay off.  Whether you are trying to rhyme or just looking for fun read aloud words, Peggy recommends creating word lists.  Don’t put as much effort into adjective and eliminate virtually all adverbs.  Put your effort into specific, colorful nouns and verbs.
  2. Word length can be used to speed up and slow down your text.  Multiple syllable words give the impression of speed. Single syllables slow things down.
  3. Rewriting is 100% essential.  This doesn’t mean tweaking a word or two.  It may mean discarding and adding lines or altogether changing the rhythm.  Be aware of the emotion and idea that you want to convey.  I knew this but getting to see Peggy’s examples helped me to see what I rewrite on even very short text can accomplish.

I’m never going to be a world class poet, but Peggy supplied me with some tools to make my picture book texts shine.


February 28, 2017

Picture Book or Magazine-Length Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 5:51 pm
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Oonce-upon-a-time-719174_1920ne of the most difficult things for new writers, and even experienced writers, to grasp are the differences between different types of writing.  How does an early reader manuscript differ from a picture book?  How does a magazine story differ from a picture book manuscript?

Today, I’m going to talk about how a magazine story manuscript differs from a picture book manuscript.  And let me emphasize something.  We are talking about manuscripts.  Once the two pieces are published, the physical form of the published piece takes over and dominates the form of the story or manuscript.

That’s why we are focusing on manuscripts.  So how does a magazines piece differ from a picture book?  First lets cover how they don’t differ.

It isn’t length.  Manuscripts for either form can have a word count of well-below 100 words to several hundred.

It isn’t focus.  Magazine stories focus on the protagonist.  You generally don’t have to the time or space to bring in numerous siblings or the entire class.  But a picture book can also have this super tight focus.

There are two principal differences between a magazine story and a picture book.  The first is illustration possibilities.  Due to the format, a picture book has 32 pages.  Some of these pages may become back matter.  There is going to be a title page.  But you usually need at least 14 spreads.  If you don’t have 14 distinct illustration possibilities than you probably aren’t writing a picture book manuscript.

The second principal difference is lasting appeal or value for the buck.  Is your story something that a parent or grandparent would be willing to pay $16.99 to read again and again and again?  If the story isn’t going to hold up to multiple readings, either to a classroom or a single child, then it isn’t a picture book.  This means that a picture book story has to have depth and adult appeal.

Take a look at your manuscript.  Have you created something with 14 distinct illustration possibilities? These can be changes in action, tone or setting.  The illustrator can zoom out or zoom in but you have to give this person a story they can work with.

Now look at it for value/depth.  Is this something that you can see an adult reading again and again?  Neither type of writing is easy but it is all much easier if you know what to look for in your work.


July 1, 2016

Picture Books: Leaving Room for the Illustrations

illustrationFor those of us who write but don’t illustrate, part of the balance we need to achieve is writing a story that leaves space for the illustrations.  I knew better than to include specific character descriptions or clothing descriptions.  After all, unless the story depends on the character’s bright red hair, that’s the sort of detail that you can leave to the illustrator.

What I hadn’t considered was minimizing how much information I give about specific character actions and how my character gets from point A to point B.  Then I read Fred Koehler’s post, Writing Between the Lines.  Fred is the illustrator of One Day, The End by Rebecca Kai Dotlich which just one a Boston Globe Horn Book Award.

One spread has the words “One day I took a bath.”  Yes, the last illustration shows the character in the tub but before she gets there she uses her boot to shelter a flower, slips into a mud puddle, has wind-blown leaves stick to the mud and that’s why she needs the bath.  But the text doesn’t detail what led to the bath.  Koehler got to play.

Koehler’s recommendation is to imagine an omniscient narrator who tells the story in your head.  He also recommends that you imagine either the voice of Sean Connery or Morgan Freeman but I think Judy Dench would be a better match for my story.  Any who, imagine this voice narrating the heart of the story.

Yes, write the scene with all the words that you need to get it down and then rewrite it including only this heart.  This is something that I’m going to try with my fiction picture book in progress.  It isn’t going to be easy to give the illustrator so much room to play but it will be worth it if, by giving the illustrator space, I can entice an editor to pick up the project.


PS. A special thank you to Lee Wind who pointed Fred’s blog post out to SCBWI members.

May 26, 2016

Writing Books that Break the Rules

Your child character must solve his own problem.

Write picture books or listen to talks on picture books and you’re going to hear this advice. And, why not?  It’s really good advice.  No one wants to follow an inactive child character through the pages of a picture book.

But I just read a book that breaks that rule.   PLOT SPOILER

Did you see that?  I’m going to spoil the plot so don’t read on if that’s a problem for you.  

Bill Cotter’s Beard in a Box breaks this rule.  The story problem is that the narrator wants to be cool like his Dad.  He decides that it is Dad’s beard that makes him so cool so he sets out to grow his own.  He makes several unsuccessful attempts (poor, half-naked kitty) and even buys a beard growing kit.  Just as he figures out the kit is a scam in walks Dad sans beard.  Dad comforts junior and explains that awesomeness doesn’t have anything to do with the beard.  It’s all about you as a person.

Yep.  Dad explains it all.

No big epiphany for junior.  No Aha! moment.

So how did this picture book sell when the child narrator doesn’t solve the problem?  I think there are four things that helped this manuscript sell.

The narrator knew the answer all along.  When he’s thinking about how awesome his Dad is, he isn’t thinking about Dad trimming his beard, combing his beard or anything else along those lines.  He’s thinking about Dad playing basketball, playing his guitar and going biking.  It’s all about what Dad does not Dad and facial hair.

This book is really funny.  The humor in this book is going to appeal to both the child reader and the adult reader.  How can it not?  He shaves the cat.  All of his attempts to create a beard are funny as are his imaginings of “life with beard.”  because, you know, the beard will definitely make you a pirate.

The ending is satisfying. This book might seem quiet in that the ending is sweet and touching and look at Dad and Jr. playing basketball, biking, making music and fishing.  Isn’t that sweet?  But is it also satisfying.  It isn’t a big slam-bang type of satisfying ending but it is a warm and heart-felt and that’s what makes the book…

Marketable.  Think Father’s Day Book.  This might not be the book that Dad would buy, it is definitely the type of book that Mom would buy for the kids to give Dad on Father’s Day.

The lesson?  The book you write can break the rules as long as it still works well and there is a market for sales.  And it doesn’t hurt if it is really fun too.



March 7, 2016

Picture Book Writing: The Wonders of a Good Rewrite

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:13 am
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New York Times Newspaper, Press Room, 1942, ReporterIf you’ve been writing for any length of time, you know that 90% of writing is actually rewriting.  Your initial idea was brilliant but somehow what you got down on paper (on in a computer file) isn’t quite there.  Your picture book has a solid plot (fiction) or subject (nonfiction).  You’ve got everything there that you need but it is clunky and too long.

How can you make the text sing?  Follow these four steps:

Walk Away.  If you’ve been working on this manuscript for a while, you need to walk away.  And, no, I don’t mean for 15 or 20 minutes.  If you don’t have a deadline give yourself a few weeks or a month.  When you come back to the manuscript you will see it with fresh eyes.  The picture book that I rewrote this weekend started out at 698 words.  I managed to cut about 150 or just over 20%.  In part I did this by . . .

Making Use of Page Turns. A page turn performs a wonderful function in a picture book.  Not only is it a visual break and a chance to surprise the reader, in nonfiction it can also mark a transition to a new topic.  Instead of saying “And now we go on to penguins which puke-feed their babies,” you just do it.  Obviously, that’s a smarty-pants example and NOT the text from my picture book, but using the page turns did allow me to cut out 7 or 8 transitions of this kind.  I also reduced my word count by . . .

Making My Afterword Count.  There are so many glorious, wonderful and amazing facts that you find when researching a nonfiction topic.  It seems such a pity to leave out the fact that the majority of blood-sharing among vampire bats occurs between females or that veterinarians removed a 4-pound trichobezoar (hairball) from the stomach of a tiger.  But sometimes it is necessary both to focus my topic but also to streamline my word count.  This tangential but glorious facts can and should go in my afterword.

Read it out loud.  Once you have streamlined your text, it is time to turn it into poetry.  There are so many ways to make your picture book text fun to read aloud but the only way to be certain that you’ve accomplished this is to actually read it out loud.  Do that spread by spread and you can adjust each line for maximum fun.

When your picture book is getting there but still needs one more really solid rewrite, these four tips can help take it from hum-drum to humming along.



January 25, 2016

Picture Book Writing: How Much Detail

galoshesRecently I read a blog post by agent Heather Alexander on whether or not to include illustration notes in your picture book manuscript.  In short, her answer is NO.

Yes, there are times that it is okay but most often the answer is NO.  Why is this? Because for the most part illustration notes are the author’s attempt to take over the illustrator’s job.  What color is Becca’s dress?  Not your problem.  What type of shoes does she wear?  Not your problem.  Back pack?  Not your (can you fill in the blank?).

The reality is that these details fall under the control of the illustrator unless they somehow impact the story.  And the truth is that most often they don’t.

One of the biggest problems that writers have is writing too much into a story.  When we do this, we don’t leave room for the reader to explore and stretch and make the story her own.  For more on this, you can read my post today at the Muffin.

Picture books are a bit trickier than your average novel or short story because we also need to leave room for the illustrator.  That means that you don’t need to include visual details.  The beauty of this is that when you  are writing a picture book you can reserve your precious word count for the details that are truly up to you, the writer.

Don’t tell us that Becca’s galoshes are yellow.  Tell us about the sound they make when she stomps in a puddle. Tell us how they smelled new out of the box.

Tell us why they matter to the story.  I’m not telling you to write Becca loved her galoshes more than anything in the world. Instead, give us the kind of detail that helps us reach the conclusion ourselves.  Becca wore her galoshes to school.  She wore her galoshes to bed.  She even wore them in the shower.  

No illustrations notes required and you’ve left room for your reader to come to her own conclusions about Becca and her galoshes.




January 5, 2016

Preparing for ReviMo 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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For those of you who don’t know about this program, ReviMo is Revise More.  It is a picture book revision challenge in which participants pledge to revise 5 days during the week of the challenge.  This year that would be January 10 through January 16.  You can revise five different manuscripts or you can revise the same manuscript five times.

Five times?  Yep.  That’s for those of us who like to focus on one thing at a time.  My first revision might be to deepen characterization.  My second involves starting the story in just the right place.  My third?  Cutting details the illustrator could provide.  My fourth would be getting rid of excess words.  My fifth focuses on ramping up picture book language.

This week I’m chosing the manuscripts I want to rewrite next week.  My focus will most likely be on nonfiction since my plan is to use these to get an agent.  I will be revising:

What’s Up Chuck?  The Biology of Vomit.  Yep.  That’s an actual manuscript.  It started out as an early middle grade but for marketing purposes, translation: to avoid a competing manuscript, I rewrote it as a picture book.  I’m still sitting on draft #1 so I need to nudge the piles on my desk and find my critique group’s comments.

Good Morning Sun (working title).  That’s the manuscript I’m writing for critique group this week.

Fearless Felicity.  I need to tie her greatest desire more closely to the solution.  Fortunately, I know that to do and just need to sit down and do it.  This one is actually GASP fiction.

Embarrassingly enough, I have no recollection what I called the next manuscript.  It is a grade school astronomy book on time zones.  I need to rework it ala The House that Jack Built.

Ink and Paper is one of my first manuscripts and is about a boy and his grandfather.

Prey vs Predator.  This one is simply a matter of reordering some spreads and I’ve been sitting on it an embarrassingly long time.

Feel the Music. This is the one that almost became on app.  I want to revisit it and see if I still like this new version and get it back out.

That’s 7 and in all honestly I could probably come up with something like 15 or 20.  The reality is that first drafts are a lot more fun than rewrites.  Still, I can’t submit a first draft and Meg Miller’s ReviMo challenge will get me moving.  Click here if you are interested in signing up.




November 13, 2015

How to make a picture book dummy

DummySince I’m in a bit of a picture book groove, I thought I’d do another post on that this week.  This time I’m writing about a revision tool — the dummy.  Just because you’ve made a story board doesn’t mean that you can skip the dummy.

When I make a dummy, I am looking at the details.

  • If I have a two-page spread, does the scene demand this panoramic scope?
  • If I have a one-page spread, is there the detail it demands?
  • Does this spread differ in some way from the surrounding spreads? This difference can be a change in setting, which characters are present, emotion or action.
  • Does this spread have a specific action for the illustrator to depict?
  • Do I avoid dialog with no accompanying action?  Talking heads make for boring illustrations.
  • Does my text take advantage of page turns?  Page turns are great for hiding surprises.

In addition to helping me see if my text works within the picture book structure, a dummy also forces me to look at the actual text one spread at a time.  It helps me slow down and take my time as I go through the rewrite process.  Here are some of the things that I consider:

  • Is my text as tight as it can be?  If not, cut, cut, cut.
  • Are some spreads text heavy?  There should be balance.  I don’t want most spreads to have 2 or 3 lines and another to have 8.  If this happens . . . cut, cut, cut.
  • Do I use a lot of visual description?  Some of it can probably go.
  • Do I use good picture book language?  This is a good time to check for lyrical language, repeats, onomatopoeia, etc.

Sure, I could do this without a dummy, but a dummy helps me envision my work as the picture book it will one day become.  It also helps me slow down and work with only small portions of the text, giving every word the attention it deserves.

To make a dummy staple together 16 pieces of paper so that you have 32 pages front and back.  Then mark off one page for the title page and other front matter.  There are generally about three pages at the beginning of a picture book that contain the title and other material but no story.  Once you have this, you are ready to print out your text and lay it out in the dummy.  Do that and you’re ready to rewrite.

Why not try this technique with your own work?


November 12, 2015

How to use a story board

storyboardGiven that it is PiBoIdMo and so much thought it going into picture books, I thought this would be a good time to discuss how we write them.  One of my favorite tools is the story board.  A story board is an illustrators’ tool that allows you to plan out an entire picture book spread by spread.

How do you use it if you aren’t an illustrator?  Some writers make quick sketches.  Others jot down a few words that represent the scene.  A story board helps you see if you have enough “story” for an entire picture book.  Although the illustrator may not break it down the same way that you do, this will show you if you have only half what you need or half again too much.

Some people print out a story board worksheet.  You can download one here.

I find a single page a little too tight.  I also hate writing on the page and then erasing things as I shift bits and pieces of the story.

Other people use a template on their computer.  Since you can only fit about 6 spreads on most screens, this keeps me from seeing the whole thing at once.  Yeah, I know.  I’m picky.

So what I did was make my own template.  See that photo up there on the right hand side?  That giant storyboard started out its life as a piece of cardboard in a poster frame. I’ve marked off the pages I need to keep open and can see the entire book at once.  I write notes on post-it notes and lay it out on the board.  I can easily shift the notes as I add and delete scenes. Once I have everything worked out on the board, I rough out the story.

Because I’ve worked out many of the bugs on the story board, I can usually draft a picture book in an hour or two.  Do not fuss at me!  That’s a rough draft.  The language isn’t picture book language.  The characters still need work and everything else. That’s just a super messy rough draft.

But it comes together as quick as it does because I’ve already taken a hard look at the big picture.  Try it out when you write your next picture book and see if it helps.



October 26, 2015

Picture Book Idea Month

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 12:08 am
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While I do not NaNoWriMo, there is another November challenge that I participate in every year — Picture Book Idea Month or PiBoIdMo.  The goal for PiBoIdMo is to come up with 30 picture book ideas throughout the month of November.

Ideally, you come up with one a day.  Ideally.

I don’t think that I’ve ever done it quite like that but I also find that if I can come up with two or three ideas, I can normally come up with five or six.  One simply leads to another.  Coming up with one a day is much more difficult for me.

The great thing about PiBoIdMo is that you aren’t working in a vacuum.  Like NaNoWriMo, you register and have the support of your peers.  Tara Lazar is the brains behind PiBoIdMo and she invites a variety of people associated with picture book creation to write blog posts throughout the month; see left for the blogging schedule.  There are also prizes to be had but I have to admit that I’m more into reading the blog posts and the brain storming.

I’m really looking forward to writing some new picture books during the upcoming year.  And a big part of that will be brainstorming characters and other ideas.  PiBoIdMo is what will get me  going.  Care to join me? Starting today you can register for this challenge here.


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